Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
Severe alcohol-related brain damage typically occurs after years of heavy drinking. However, negative effects on the brain happen after only a few drinks.
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The Impact of Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
Overall, alcohol is linked to over 200 diseases, conditions, and injuries. In 2010, alcohol abuse was responsible for 2.8% of all deaths in the US. While it can take years of heavy drinking for diseases like alcohol-related brain damage to appear, negative effects on the brain materialize after only a few drinks.
As an individual consumes alcohol, he or she will begin to feel the depressant effects it has on the brain. As the body’s control center, the impairing effects of alcohol quickly impede the normal function of areas all over the body. Short-term symptoms indicating reduced brain function include difficulty walking, blurred vision, slowed reaction time, and compromised memory. Heavy drinking and binge drinking can result in permanent damage to the brain and nervous system.
Developing Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
Essentially, alcohol is a toxin. Thus, its primary impact on the body – especially when consumed excessively – is harmful. Heavy drinking, or binge drinking five or more days in the past month, can lead to long-term brain damage that simultaneously damages other areas of the body.
The extent of the effect alcohol has on the body depends on a number of factors, including:
- Quantity and frequency of alcohol consumed
- Age drinking started and how long he or she has been drinking
- Individual’s current age, overall health, gender, and genetics
- Family history of substance abuse
How Alcohol Causes Brain Damage
When alcohol enters the body, it travels from the stomach and intestines through the bloodstream to various organs. In the liver, spikes in blood alcohol content caused by heavy drinking overload its ability to process alcohol. So, excess alcohol journeys from the liver to other parts of the body, like the heart and central nervous system. Subsequently, alcohol moves through the blood-brain barrier, affecting the brain’s neurons directly. There are over 100 billion interconnected neurons in the brain and central nervous system. As a toxic substance, drinking alcohol can damage, or even kill, neurons.
Alcohol is often described as a “downer” because it slows down signals sent between neurons. Additionally, certain automatic brain processes controlled by the cerebellum and cerebral cortex are impaired or slowed (i.e. breathing, balance, processing new information). It also slows GABA neurotransmitters, resulting in slurred speech, lethargic movements, and reduced reaction time. Conversely, alcohol causes the rapid release of glutamate neurotransmitters (responsible for dopamine regulation in the reward center of the brain). This creates the “warm, fuzzy” feelings many associate with drinking.
These short-term effects of alcohol, though potentially dangerous on their own, mask the long-term damage alcohol can cause. Damage to the hippocampus region (responsible for memory creation) is severely affected by drinking and “blackouts,” leading to short-term memory loss and brain cell death. Repeated blackouts, a clear sign of excessive drinking, can result in permanent damage that inhibits the brain from retaining new memories. For example, an individual may be able to recall past events with perfect clarity but not remember having the conversation a few hours later.
Types of Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
The popular drinking term “wet brain” actually refers to a condition within the alcohol-related brain damage family known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS). The disease consists of two separate-but-linked forms of dementia. Those with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) are commonly malnourished due to a poor diet. Often, this leads to a thiamine (or vitamin B1) deficiency because alcohol blocks a person’s ability to absorb or use the vitamin. Nearly 80% of people with an AUD have a thiamine deficiency; many will develop brain damage like WKS after years of heavy drinking. Typically, patients develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy and are later diagnosed with Korsakoff’s as well.
Symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome include:
- Paralysis of eye muscles
- Difficulty with muscle coordination
- Impaired learning ability
Other types of alcohol-related brain damage occur outside of direct, damaging interactions between alcohol and brain cells. Those who drink heavily are statistically more likely to injure themselves – and their brains – through falls or fights. Also, damage to other parts of the body will affect the brain over time. For instance, alcoholic hepatitis is inflammation of the liver caused by years of drinking. Because the liver is responsible for filtering out toxins, a dysfunctional liver sends “bad” blood to the brain. The result is hepatic encephalopathy, or a buildup of toxins in the brain.
Symptoms of hepatic encephalopathy include:
- Changing sleep patterns
- Altered mood or personality
- Shortened attention span
- Shaking hands
- Problems with coordination
Finally, alcohol-related brain damage may be present in infants subjected to alcohol while in the womb. There is no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy because of the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Alcohol travels through the umbilical cord to the fetus, where the undeveloped body is unable to process the substance properly. In the US, half of all pregnancies are unplanned, and women may not know they are pregnant until weeks 4 to 6. Thus, the risk of developing FAS is high in women who drink without using effective forms of contraception.
FAS can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and a number of developmental disorders, including:
- Small head size
- Distinct facial features
- Shorter-than-average height and weight
- Impaired learning ability
- Low IQ
- Sleep and sucking problems during infancy
- Poor vision or hearing
- Heart, kidney, and bone disorders
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Alcohol-Related Brain Damage Diagnosis
Generally, an individual will develop alcohol-related brain damage after 10 to 20 years of heavy drinking (though some have developed brain damage in less time). Women may develop alcohol-related brain damage in a shorter time span due to body size. People between the ages of 45 and 60 are the most commonly diagnosed group because it takes time for symptoms to appear. Oftentimes, when patients finally receive a diagnosis, much of the damage is permanent. Yet, the brain is a powerful organ and capable of regeneration to an extent. Through early intervention and treatment, some brain impairment can be halted, or even reversed.
Treatment for Alcohol-Related Brain Damage
Depending on the severity of brain damage, patients may receive either preventative, restorative, or end-of-life supportive medical care. There are no cures for alcohol-related brain damage. For those with WKS, thiamine and vitamin supplements can improve brain function. Early diagnosis of alcohol-related dementia, hepatic encephalopathy, and FAS can halt alcohol-related brain damage and lifestyle changes may even reverse deterioration. However, for all forms of alcohol-related brain damage, quitting drinking is the best first step.
Brain damage caused by alcohol represents a gradual decline in brain function and health. For people suffering from an alcohol dependency, there is time to get help and to begin to rehabilitate yourself. All treatment for AUDs and alcohol-related diseases starts with a complete detox to free the body of harmful substances. Most medical professionals recommend some form of inpatient detox at a rehab facility. This increases comfortability for the individual as well as their chances of a successful recovery. Through proper detox, abstinence, and a healthy diet, brain scans show some effects of heavy drinking can be undone. Alcohol treatment medications like Acamprosate and Naltrexone may be prescribed to block the effects of a relapse or reduce alcohol cravings.
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- Author — Last Edited: May 20, 2019
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