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Saturday, September 27, 2014

How Alcohol Damages Your Brain

By Philomena Njenga

Anyone who has ever observed a drunken person has most likely noted changes in expected normal behaviour. These include uncoordinated movement resulting in staggering, slurred speech and/ or speech that generally doesn’t make sense. Blackouts and memory losses are another effect whereby the person may not remember events which occurred when s/he was under alcohol’s influence. Others lose control of their bowel and bladder movements.  In extreme cases, death may occur.

Another school of thought maintains that ‘a little wine is good for the stomach; and that moderate drinking improves the cognitive (thinking and reasoning) skills.


Paul is a social drinker. He drinks moderately and mostly when in the company of others. Normally, Paul is not given to much conversation. However, whenever he drinks, he becomes quite talkative sometimes to the point of being ‘loud’.  Paul admits that after a few drinks, he starts experiencing slurred speech, difficulty walking, slower reaction speeds and blurred vision. On a few occasions, he has drunk heavily and suffered from short-term memory impairments and blackout whereby he could not clearly remember what happened nor account for his actions.

However, Paul notes that these effects were not long-lasting and that they eventually wore off after some time once he stopped drinking.
Ethanol is the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages. It acts as a central nervous system depressant and can impair memory. Effects of alcohol on other brain areas include an inhibitory effect on cerebral cortex thus altering thought processes, decreasing inhibition and increasing threshold to pain. Sexual performance is decreased through depressing nerve centres in the hypothalamus. Inhibition of secretion of Antidiuretic hormone (ADH) of the pituitary gland affects urine excretion. Breathing and heart rate is depressed due to inhibition of the neural functioning of the medulla. Alcohol also alters the functioning in the cerebellum, which coordinates movement and some forms of learning.

According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, several factors influence how alcohol affects a person’s brain. These include:  how much and often they drink; the age at which they started drinking and how long they have been at it; their age, gender, genetic background;  family history and relationship with alcoholism; prenatal alcohol exposure and their general health.
As in Paul’s case, alcohol-related blackouts occur mostly with social drinkers. This is especially true if the alcohol is taken fast and on an empty stomach.

Whereas alcohol use doesn’t kill brain cells, it can damage the end of neurons, which are called dendrites. Though in itself the cell isn’t damaged, the way it communicates with others is changed, resulting in problems conveying messages between the neurons.  According to researchers, this damage is mostly reversible on sobriety.


As a college student, Esther was introduced to alcohol by her peers. At first she dismissed it as just a phase, until she eventually became pregnant and came face to face with her alcohol dependence. She was cautioned to abstain from alcohol as this could be dangerous to her unborn baby. She tried to, but every now and then, she’d give in to the desire. As much as she didn’t binge, the foetus was affected by the exposure to alcohol.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is associated with high alcohol consumption while pregnant and is characterized by mental and physical defects to the child. The main effect of FAS is permanent damage to the central nervous system, especially the brain. Whereas binge drinking and regular heavy drinking poses the highest risk, even lesser amounts of alcohol can cause damage, including drinking at the earliest stages of pregnancy, before the woman even realises she is pregnant.

Alcohol crosses the placental barrier from the mother’s bloodstream into her developing baby’s blood. This can interfere with the development of the baby’s critical organs, the brain included. This causes a range of developmental, cognitive and behavioural problems, which mostly lasts a lifetime.


Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) is a condition which describes a range of permanent birth defects which occur in a child due to maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. This includes:  Characteristic facial features i.e. small eye opening, smooth philtrum(groove between nose and upper lip), thin upper lip, low nasal bridge, skin folds at the corner of the eye, small midface and small head circumference. Stunted fetal growth and weight prenatally and after birth as well as central nervous system abnormalities are also part of FASD diagnosis.
According to the American college of Obstetrics and Gynecology, pregnant women should not take any form of alcohol. In the United States, prenatal exposure to alcohol is the most common yet 100% preventable cause of birth defects.

Beyond infancy, prenatal alcohol exposure can make kids have learning and reading disabilities, low frustration tolerance and inadequate social boundaries. Teenagers may suffer from continuous learning difficulties, anxiety, depression and inappropriate social behavior.


Ted is a habitual and heavy drinker. He started drinking at a very young age, taking sips from his father’s drinks. Once in his teen-hood, he experimented with different types of alcohol from beer, wine and distilled spirits. Unfortunately, he couldn’t control his drinking and eventually he became a heavy drinker. He takes large quantities of alcohol and drinks quite often. His friends are also heavy drinkers and to him, binge drinking is more of a usual rather than a rare occurrence.
Ted runs the risk of suffering from serious and persistent damage to his brain, either directly or indirectly due to his heavy and long-term exposure to alcohol.

The liver breaks down alcohol into harmless by-products and clears it from the body. Prolonged liver dysfunction from acute alcohol consumption, i.e. liver cirrhosis can harm the brain, causing a potentially fatal brain condition known as hepatic encephalopathy.

Hepatic encephalopathy causes changes in a person’s sleep patterns, personality and mood. The person develops psychiatric conditions like depression and anxiety. Acute cognitive e.g. short attention span and coordination problems also occur. In severe cases, a person may slip into a coma. Alcohol-damaged liver cells allow toxic substances like ammonia and manganese to pass into the brain and harm brain cells. These substances are involved in the development of hepatic encephalopathy.

According to US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, up to 80% of alcoholics suffer from Thiamine deficiency. Thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, is an essential nutrient necessary to all body tissues including the brain. Severe alcohol consumption can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb Thiamine. Thiamine deficiency may lead to a condition known as Wernicke-korsakoff syndrome (WKS).
WKS consists of two different syndromes: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis. Wernicke’s encephalopathy is short-lived but serious. Its symptoms include mental confusion, difficulty in muscle coordination and oculomotor disturbances (paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes). Though patients suffering from this condition may not exhibit all the symptoms at the same time, the disorder may be present even with one or two of the symptoms. A majority of people suffering from Wernicke’s encephalopathy also develop Korsakoff’s psychosis.

Korsakoff’s psychosis is long-lasting and debilitating. Its symptoms include persistent learning and memory problems, low frustration tolerance and difficulty in walking and coordination. Ironically, a Korsakoff’s psychosis alcoholic may discuss a past event in their life in great detail, yet a short while later forget ever having the discussion.


The cerebellum is the part of the brain that suffers most damage in connection to heavy alcohol consumption. This is because it is quite sensitive to the effects of thiamine deficiency. The cerebellum is responsible for motor function and coordination.

However, alcohol-dependent individuals need not give up.  According to the Lancet Psychiatry, a study conducted showed that alcohol dependence exerts a toll on the brain white matter microstructure, which also has the potential of repair with prolonged sobriety.

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