Alcohol And Brain Damage
UNIQUE TIMES|October - November 2021
Alcohol begins affecting a person’s brain as soon as it enters the bloodstream. In a healthy person, the liver quickly filters alcohol, helping the body get rid of the drug.
Dr Arun Oommen
However, when a person drinks to excess, the liver cannot filter the alcohol fast enough, and this triggers immediate changes in the brain. Over time, excessive alcohol consumption can damage both the brain and liver, causing lasting damages. In general, the more alcohol a person drinks, the more likely it becomes that alcohol will damage the brain — both in the short and long term.

Why does drinking alcohol have such profound effects on thought, mood, and behavior? And why does alcohol dependence develop and persist in some people and not in others? Through neuroscience research, scientists are gaining a better understanding of how alcohol changes the brain and how those changes in turn influence certain behaviors.

Excessive alcohol consumption can have long-lasting effects on neurotransmitters in the brain, decreasing their effectiveness or even mimicking them. Alcohol also destroys brain cells and contracts brain tissue. Some people with a history of excessive alcohol use develop nutritional deficiencies that further damage brain function.

A number of factors influence how and to what extent alcohol affects the brain, including

• how much and how often a person drinks

• the age at which he or she first began drinking, and how long he or she has been drinking

• the person’s age, level of education, gender, genetic background, and family history of alcoholism

• whether he or she is at risk as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure and

• his or her general health status.

How Alcohol Changes the Brain:

Alcohol Tolerance, Alcohol Dependence, and Alcohol Withdrawal

As the brain adapts to alcohol’s presence over time, a heavy drinker may begin to respond to alcohol differently than someone who drinks only moderately. Some of these changes may be behind alcohol’s effects, including alcohol tolerance (i.e., having to drink more in order to become intoxicated) and alcohol withdrawal symptoms. These effects are associated with alcohol dependence. When the brain is exposed to alcohol, it may become tolerant or insensitive to alcohol’s effects. Thus, as a person “When alcohol is present in the brain for long periods as with long¬ term heavy drinking the brain seeks to compensate for its effects.” continues to drink heavily, he or she may need more alcohol than before to become intoxicated. As tolerance increases, drinking may escalate, putting a heavy drinker at risk for a number of health problems including alcohol dependence. Even as the brain becomes tolerant to alcohol, other changes in the brain may increase some people’s sensitivity to alcohol. The desire for alcohol may transition into a pathological craving for these effects. This craving is strongly associated with alcohol dependence. Other changes in the brain increase a heavy drinker’s risk for experiencing alcohol withdrawal a collection of symptoms that can appear when a person with alcohol dependence suddenly stops drinking. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe, especially during the 48 hours immediately following a bout of drinking. Typical symptoms include profuse sweating, racing heart rate, and feelings of restlessness and anxiety. Research shows that alcohol¬ dependent people may continue drinking to avoid experiencing withdrawal. Feelings of anxiety associated with alcohol withdrawal can persist long after the initial withdrawal symptoms have ceased, and some researchers believe that over the long term this anxiety is a driving force behind alcohol use relapse.

Neurons and Synaptic Transmission

The brain transmits information through a system of interconnected nerve cells known as neurons. Signals travel rapidly along chains of neurons using a combination of electrical and chemical processes. These signals cause many of alcohol’s effects on behaviors, such as tolerance, craving, and addiction. Signals travel from one neuron to the next through a process known as synaptic transmission.

These signals are vital to brain function, sending messages throughout the brain, which, in turn, regulate every aspect of the body’s function. Neurotransmitter chemicals play a key role in this signal transmission. Under normal circumstances, the brain’s balance of neurotransmitters allows the body and brain to function unimpaired. Alcohol can cause changes that upset this balance, impairing brain function. For example, the brain balances the activity of inhibitory neurotransmitters, which work to delay or stop nerve signals, with that of excitatory neurotransmitters, which work to speed up these signals. Alcohol can slow signal transmission in the brain, contributing to some of the effects associated with alcohol intoxication, including sleepiness and sedation. As the brain becomes used to alcohol, it compensates for alcohol’s slowing effects by increasing the activity of excitatory neurotransmitters, speeding up the signal transmission. In this way, the brain attempts to restore itself to a normal state in the presence of alcohol. If the influence of alcohol is suddenly removed (that is if a long-term heavy drinker stops drinking suddenly), the brain may have to readjust once again: this may lead to the unpleasant feelings associated with alcohol withdrawal, such as experiencing “the shakes” or increased anxiety.

Short-Term Effects

People with severe symptoms of intoxication or symptoms that last many hours are at risk of alcohol poisoning. The ethanol in alcohol acts like a poison. When the liver is not able to filter this poison quickly enough, a person can develop signs of alcohol poisoning or alcohol overdose. An overdose of alcohol affects the brain’s ability to sustain basic life functions.

Symptoms include:

• vomiting

• seizures

• slow heart rate

• difficulty staying awake

• fainting

• low body temperature

• low gag reflex, which can increase the risk of choking if a person vomits

• clammy skin

As soon as alcohol enters the bloodstream, it changes brain functions. Moderate consumption of alcohol may cause the following temporary effects:

• loss of inhibition

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