DOES ALCOHOL REALLY KILL BRAIN CELLS?
Growing up, people would often say that alcohol kills brain cells, which can often be interpreted as meaning that a single drink of alcohol is all it takes to kill brain cells. Often the stereotype about people who consume alcohol is that they are slower and less bright than others because of their usage when in reality, there are two different types of effects on the brain after consuming alcohol.
There are short-term effects, like slurred speech, dizziness, and lowered inhibitions, that all go away once the individual becomes sober and there are long-term effects that continue after sobriety. What people do not talk about often is that it takes time for alcohol to kill brain cells and this depends on various factors like how often one drinks, the age one starts drinking, general health, and whether the individual was born with prenatal alcohol exposure. Even though short terms effects wear off after sobriety, short-term effects can be dangerous when the individual consumes enough alcohol to start experiencing blackouts.
Blackouts are memory lapses in which the individual is unable to recall specific events over the course of their alcohol consumption. In an hour, the individual could have unsafe sexual intercourse, partake in dangerous activities, or drive without remembering any of it in the next hour. This can lead to unwanted pregnancies, injury, or accidental death. While some concern is about the individual’s image that they put out when being blackout drunk, more fatal concerns are about the individual’s physical health.
The long-term effects regard actual damage to the brain, and contrary to public opinion, which holds that alcohol directly causes brain damage, research has suggested that alcohol indirectly causes brain damage through prior poor health or cirrhosis of the liver. Brain damage includes a decreased ability to think abstractly and reduced visuospatial abilities, which are the individual’s ability to perceive and recall external 3-D objects in their environment. More severe brain damage results from brain disorders that are indirectly caused by the long-term, heavy use of alcohol.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is one of the brain disorders that heavy alcohol consumption can lead to and is caused by a deficiency in thiamine that is commonly found in alcoholics. There are two subsets of this disorder, one short-term, the other long-lasting. Wernicke’s encephalopathy, the short-term subset, produces symptoms of confusion, nerve paralysis of the eyes, and muscle coordination problems. This can lead to poor work performance and decreased efficiency of living. Korsakoff’s psychosis develops after Wernicke’s encephalopathy and consists of significant memory problems like retrograde amnesia and anterograde amnesia.
Retrograde amnesia, the inability to recall old information, and anterograde amnesia, the inability to create new memories, simultaneously produce confusion in the affected individual and can lead to difficulties that can impair a normal way of living. Thankfully, thiamine can be given to patients with these brain disorders to relieve some of the symptoms, but not in all cases. Brain damage also occurs from cirrhosis of the liver (liver damage) that is also caused by heavy drinking. Hepatic encephalopathy is the brain disorder that results from this liver damage and produces symptoms of anxiety, depression, personality changes, mood swings, decreased coordination and shortened attention span. In more severe cases of this disorder, individuals can fall into a coma.
If you or someone you know is a heavy consumer of alcohol and is showing signs of any of these disorders, consider seeking professional help. Asana Recovery offers full detox and residential rehabilitation treatments for individuals struggling with addiction. They are trained professionals who understand the real struggles of addiction and recovery. Contact (949) 438-4504 to learn more about their treatment programs.