What Happens When You Drink?
Alcohol is a neurotoxin. It destroys brain tissue and can cause seriously damaging long-term effects. That much is common knowledge. What isn’t so well understood, though, is how alcohol does these things.
That is to say, what makes alcohol such a potent and dangerous chemical? How does it change the way our brains operate? More to the point, how does it hurt the way our brains operate?
Well, you’ve come to the right place! We, at Lighthouse Recovery Institute, believe in the institute part of our name. We aim to be a resource for comprehensive information on all areas of addiction and recovery. With that in mind, sit back and learn the mental effects alcohol has on the brain!
Let’s start somewhere that (almost) everyone can relate to: blackouts. Most everybody has experienced a blackout. For some, it occurred during hazy college days. In fact, according to a government survey, 51% of college students who drink have experienced a blackout.
So, what exactly is a blackout? Well, it’s a period of semi-consciousness when someone is awake and interacting with the world, but unaware of what they’re doing. It’s a period where the brain is working, where neurons are firing, but it’s not behaving properly. Neurotransmitters aren’t being released properly and memories aren’t being stored in the right areas.
This last part, memories not being stored in the right areas, accounts for the most recognizable symptoms of a blackout – not remembering what happened.
Why is that though? Well, the answer lies in another mental effect of alcohol. The answer lies in how booze slows down brain activity.
Slowing Brain Activity
Alcohol works on numerous neurotransmitters, most notably glutamate and GABA. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter. This means it increases cognitive functioning, energy, and overall brain activity. GABA, on the other hand, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. This means it decreases brain activity, slows nerve signals, and reduces energy levels.
Alcohol affects these neurotransmitters by reducing the production of glutamate and increasing the production of GABA. This, in turn, leads to the mentally and physically sedating effects of alcohol. Worth noting is that, while alcohol affects all areas of the brain, these effects occur primarily in the cerebral cortex and cerebellum.
What does that look like? Well, it looks like slurred speech, uncoordinated movements, lowered inhibitions, and a general “sloppiness.” Alcohol’s effect on neurotransmitters is also responsible for, as mentioned above, blackouts.
Another area of the brain that alcohol affects is the medulla. You may remember this funny sounding area from Adam Sandler’s film The Waterboy. All jokes aside, the medulla is the part of the brain that handles unconscious, or automatic, functions like breathing.
Remember, alcohol increases GABA and decreases glutamate. In the medulla, this leads to sleepiness. So that’s why booze makes you tired!
Wet brain, the colloquial term for a type of brain damage known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, is a deliberating mental side effect of alcoholism. It’s a one two punch caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1 and an excess of glucose (remember, alcohol is metabolized and turned into sugar).
Lighthouse has previously written extensively on what wet brain is and how it affects individuals. For a detailed explanation, read this article on the in’s and out’s of wet brain.
Other Areas Alcohol Hurts
Alcohol is thought to disrupt the development of new brain cells. This process, called neurogenesis, is vital to long-term brain health. That is to say, our brains don’t stop developing once we reach adulthood. Rather, brain cells are periodically “replaced.”
Although alcohol’s effect on neurogenesis has never been studied in humans, animal tests show that large amounts of alcohol leads to “disruption” in forming new brain cells. Based on these findings, it looks like alcohol really does kill brain cells.