How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

Last Updated: Feb 24th 2020

Reviewed by Brittany Polansky, MSW, LCSW

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

Everyone has seen someone who’s had too much to drink at some point. These people often stumble, slur their speech, and perhaps even vomit. In some cases, they black out and aren’t able to remember most of the night. This leads a lot of people to wonder, “How does alcohol affect the brain in the short and long term?”

Alcohol Affects Motor Skills and Memory

The cerebellum, which controls motor skills such as walking and maintaining your balance, is the first victim of intoxication. Hand in hand with this problem is the effect of the drug on the cerebral cortex. There, it depresses the brain’s ability to gather and process information. As a result, drunk individuals often have a hard time thinking clearly and making sense of what they’re hearing and seeing.

As you might imagine, these effects on the brain’s functioning increase when you introduce more alcohol. When consumption reaches a tipping point, the drug impairs memory function. You may wake up without being able to recall an event, your actions, or even how you got to where you are. Someone else will have to tell you what happened, which still may not trigger any recall.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain in the Long Term?

People with an alcohol use disorder typically drink to excess on a daily basis. A regular influx of chemicals puts the brain at risk for gradual shrinkage. This type of brain damage can result in the development of learning disabilities, impaired memories, and sensory processing difficulties. Typically, these changes get progressively worse as the alcoholism continues.

Experts suggest that early stage alcohol abuse results in dopamine release, which reinforces the addiction. However, over time, the chemicals in the drug rewrite brain chemistry to such an extent that dopamine release no longer occurs. Even so, you’ll continue to chase the initial highs you remember by drinking more and more — without the desired outcome. By acting on the pituitary, which regulates hormone release, the drug further establishes its hold over you.

Undoing the Damage

There’s help for alcoholics at any stage of an alcohol use disorder. Whether you’ve been drinking for years or just a few months, you can get out of the vicious cycle. Enlist the help of a rehab facility that specializes in alcohol and drug addiction treatment. Programs there will include:

  • Assessment for a co-occurring disorder that allows for the combined treatment of a mental health issue and the addiction
  • Emphasis on talk therapy that allows you to explore the origins of negative thought, feelings, and behavioral patterns
  • Family therapy options to bring in loved ones for assistance with your pursuit of sobriety
  • Holistic treatments that help you get well physically as well as mentally; modalities might include acupuncture and massage
  • Life skills development for the ability to live life without reaching for a drink during typical activities

If you’re struggling with an alcohol abuse problem and want to stop, there’s help available right now. The friendly therapists at 1st Step Behavioral Health will partner with you in your goal of attaining sobriety. You don’t have to take the next drink or spend the rest of your life wondering, “How does alcohol affect the brain?” Reach out right now by calling (866) 971-5531 for immediate assistance.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky, MSW, LCSW

Brittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is the Assistant Clinical Director at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.