Alcohol and the Brain
The evidence on how alcohol affects the brain are clear; problems walking, slurred speech, impaired vision, slowed reaction times, and poor memory. Fortunately, these difficulties typically resolve quickly after drinking stops. More serious issues arise when an individual drinks heavily over a long period of time. In fact, research has indicated that the impact alcohol has on the brain can persist long after a person achieves sobriety. The manner in which alcohol affects the brain and the potential of reversing the effects heavy drinking has been heavily researched.
Studies have shown that there are a variety of factors that influence how alcohol affects the brain in any given person. For one thing, women do not metabolize alcohol as well as men. Other factors that influence the impact of alcohol in the brain include the age of onset of drinking, the person's age, general health status, and -- of course -- how much and how often he or she drinks.
One of the most serious disorders associated with alcoholism is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), a brain disorder caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Research has suggested that around 80 percent of alcoholics have a deficiency in thiamine. Although Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome are different conditions, both are due to brain damage caused by a lack of vitamin B1.
Wernicke encephalopathy causes brain permanent damage in regions of the brain called the thalamus and hypothalamus. Korsakoff syndrome, also called Korsakoff psychosis, typically develops as Wernicke symptoms resolve. Korsakoff psychosis results from damage to areas of the brain involved with memory. The cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for coordinating movement and learning, is especially affected by thiamine deficiency and chronic alcohol consumption. While administering thiamine can help to improve brain function in the early stages of WKS, custodial care is ultimately necessary for about 25 percent of patients.
Another well-known cause of brain damage is consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. This form of brain damage during fetal development can lead to physical, learning, and behavioral effect, the most serious of which is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Children with FAS often have distinct facial features including a small head circumference, short nose, and thin upper lip. These children tend have smaller brains with less neurons, resulting in learning and behavior problems.
Although these issues concern some of the most serious effects of alcohol and the brain, there is growing evidence that any form of alcohol abuse can have a lasting impact on the brain. Case in point, binge drinking is known to increase the risk of developing dementia and/or brain damage. For example, binge drinking among adolescents and college students has been found to cause significant deficits in visual learning and memory as well as executive functions. These functions are controlled by the hippocampus and frontal structures of the brain, which are not fully mature until around 25 years of age. Structural signs of alcohol misuse in young people include shrinking of the brain and significant changes to white matter tracts. Other research has noted that protein found in brain protein called vimentin can indicate damage to the hippocampus following binge drinking.
Other research has indicated that people with a history of drinking problems have more than twice the risk of memory problems later in life, compared with those who have never been heavy drinkers. However, research also suggests that the damaging effects of alcohol on the brain can begin to subside within two weeks after a person stops drinking. The recovery tends to vary among different areas of the brain, but this should be promising news for recovering alcoholics. Other good news: proper nutrition and aerobic exercise can also help mitigate the damaging effects of alcohol on a drinker's brain.