Alcohol and Brain Damage

Alcohol and brain damage are not necessarily connected: many people use alcohol in moderation and do not suffer ill effects. But used immoderately, alcohol can lead to brain damage. This article explains the connections between alcohol and brain damage.

About Alcohol and Brain Damage

Brain damage can occur either before birth or after birth. If it occurs after birth, it may be referred to as acquired brain injury, and if it is explicitly linked to alcohol, it can be called Alcohol-Related Brain Injury (ARBI). Alcohol consumption can lead to brain injury in a variety of ways, some of which are linked to alcohol dependence, and some of which are not.


How Alcohol Can Cause Brain Damage

In general, alcohol can lead to brain damage because:

  • it is toxic to the central nervous system (CNS);
  • its use causes changes in metabolism, heart function, and circulation
  • its presence can interfere with vitamin B1 absorption, and this vitamin (also called thiamine) is an essential brain nutrient
  • alcoholism can lead to poor nutrition or dehydration
  • alcohol use can lead to poor judgment, carelessness, or reduced mental acuity, resulting in accidents that cause brain injury
  • alcohol use can also lead indirectly to death, sometimes involving catastrophic brain injury. In young people aged 15 to 24, the leading causes of death are automobile accidents, homicides, and suicides, and alcohol is considered an important factor in all three.

The Risk Factors for ARBI

How great the risk of Alcohol-Related Brain Injury is depends on a number of factors:

  • how much alcohol is consumed
  • age of first alcohol consumption (those who consume alcohol as teenagers are at greater risk for chronic brain damage)
  • how long the person has been drinking
  • age, education, and gender
  • alcoholism in the family and genetic background
  • exposure to alcohol prior to birth
  • overall health

Age is a factor because alcohol use can be more harmful to people under 21, and their brains, in particular, are less tolerant of the presence of alcohol, even if the teens do not engage in heavy drinking consistently. Research on young people aged 14 to 21 by the American Medical Association (AMA) has showed that those who consumed alcohol had smaller hippocampi and damage to their cerebral cortexes. The first of these brain areas is involved in learning and memory, while the second has to do with reasoning and decision-making. Doubling the consumption is required for adults to experience the same level of damage. Teens using alcohol also exhibited more difficulty with learning tasks and were more likely to have difficulties in school, as well as more likely to experience mood disorders, social problems, and become involved in violence.

Types of ARBI

Ten million alcoholics in the United States, i.e., about half, have brain impairments that can be characterized as mild to severe thinking and emotional difficulties. Two million are so affected as to require custodial care. The types of ARBI disorder include the following:

  • atrophy of the cerebellum, resulting in problems with muscle coordination, which affects such activities as balance and walking
  • dysfunction of the frontal lobe, responsible for planning and abstract thought, resulting in cognitive difficulties
  • liver disease, which is strongly associated with psychiatric dysfunction in the areas of mood, as well as hallucinations and confusion
  • loss of short-term memory
  • vitamin B1 deficiency, resulting in problems with muscle coordination, vision issues, and confusion
  • trauma from falls, accidents, etc., resulting in a variety of symptoms

Because the results of ARBI can be so catastrophic and far-reaching, the best approach is to prevent teen drinking in the first place. However, experts say that - at least in some cases - teens who drink may recover from some of the effects of ARBI because their youth does provide greater powers of recuperation, provided they receive proper assistance and treatment.


"Alcohol and Brain Damage" James L. Holly, M.D. :

"Alcohol and Brain Damage" Better Health Channel of Australia:

"Link Between Underage Drinking and Brain Damage" Family Guide:

"Underage Drinkers at Higher Risk of Brain Damage than Adults American Medical Association Report Reveals" Alcohol Policy MD:

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