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The Truth About What Alcohol Does to the Brain

by Patrick Bailey
What Alcohol Does to Brain

Almost everyone has consumed alcohol in one way or the other. Whether you are a social drinker who takes an occasional swig at cocktail parties or someone who drinks until the lights go out, alcohol has become a part of our lives. For some, drinking is just a way of loosening up and connecting with friends and colleagues. And for others, it has become an indispensable part of their daily routine.

The effects of alcohol on the brain, however, varies from person to person. In short, the substance can affect you in different ways depending on your susceptibility. The resulting brain damage that could happen as a result of your alcohol intake could be due to several factors which could include your gender, age, nutrition and drinking history.

Another key factor lies in your brain’s physiology, specifically of certain regions, which determines its vulnerability to alcohol. To study the extent of damage alcoholism does on the brain, researchers have utilized several methods such as neuroimaging which examines the brains of diseased patients. Through this test, the living brain can be observed and gauge how it has deteriorated over time because of alcohol abuse.

It is worthy to note that of the 20 million alcoholics in the United States, nearly half of them have shown no signs of brain impairment. On the other hand, half of those tested have exhibited neuropsychological problems ranging from mild to severe. But what is more alarming is that about two million alcoholics in the country have developed debilitating and even permanent conditions which requires them to undergo custodial care for the rest of their lives.

Alcohol May Be Good But…

Consumption of alcohol has its benefits, particularly for those who drink in moderation. Various studies have in fact confirmed the substance’s “feel good effect.” Drinkers have testified that they feel less stressed, are happier and become more sociable. This is because alcohol releases endorphins, which are also called “pleasure hormones,” which bind to the brain’s opiate receptors.

People who drink excessively may develop a higher risk of dementia but those who drink in moderate amounts – two drinks for men and one drink for women a day – have shown no signs of brain deterioration. A recent British study, however, has bad news for moderate drinkers. It revealed that even if their alcohol intake were minimal, parts of their brains face the possibility of shrinking, especially those in charge of learning and cognition.

The University of Oxford examined the results of a 10,000-person Whitehall Study, focusing on 424 men and 103 women participants to investigate the relationship between the health and lifestyle of British civil servants. When the study commenced in 1985, all of them were in excellent health condition and none were hooked on alcohol.

During the course of the next 30 years, the subjects were asked to answer questions regarding their alcohol intake. They were also given tests to gauge their memory, reasoning as well as their verbal skills. Thereafter, they were subjected to MRI tests. After going over the results of the questionnaire, retention tests and MRI scans, they learned that the amount of shrinkage of the hypothalamus – the area of the brain in charge of memory and reasoning – had a direct correlation to their alcohol intake.

A similar study conducted by the Harvard Medical School in 2001 yielded almost the same results. The subjects of the research were 3,376 men and women who took part in a Cardiovascular Heart Study in which they underwent MRI tests and reported the amount of alcohol they consumed. The findings of the study showed that the more the subjects drank, the more their brains shrank. The study, however, did not indicate whether taking alcohol had a good, bad, or indifferent long-term impact on the brain’s health.

The Brain’s Road to Recovery

In 2013, the Society for Neuroscience held a satellite symposium entitled “Brain Pathways to Recovery From Alcohol Dependence. The meeting aimed to highlight research efforts being carried out to better understand the brain mechanisms that could help patients effectively recover from alcohol dependence. In particular, the forum’s sessions covered multilevel studies which looked into mechanisms that led to relapse and craving-related to sustained alcohol abstinence, lack of cognitive function and eventual recovery.

Most research has focused on developing a better understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms that cause alcohol dependence. On the other hand, minimal attention has been given to efforts that would shed light on the neurobiology of those who have recovered from alcoholism. Based on epidemiological data, 18.2 percent of alcohol dependents prior to last year were able to remain abstinent. This suggests that there is still hope for people afflicted with alcoholism.

Current studies related to this area of recovery may still be limited and insufficient to make a strong case. Evidence obtained from human and animal studies, however, have revealed that extricating yourself from alcohol dependence is not a static process. There is a direct link between the different stages of abstinence and the observed changes in behavior and the way the brain functions. More in-depth studies need to be done to fully understand the causes of these changes.

A wide variety of symptoms are associated with alcohol withdrawal. These include gene withdrawal, neuronal activity, and behavior. In spite of the dynamic changes observed during early to protracted abstinence, it is still uncertain how these changes will directly impact on a patient’s recovery. There are indications, however, that adaptation and rewiring of the brain network are crucial to recovery.

What needs to be explored and further understood is how abuse symptoms impact the neuro-circuits which create dependence. Moreover, there is also a need to find out how targeting these neural pathways will help boost cognitive and associated memory, as well as influence other factors during the period of abstinence.

It must be emphasized that these studies hold the key to understanding the neurobiological mechanisms leading to a patient’s recovery. The successful integration of animal models and human studies, therefore, should lead toward the interpretation of basic research discovery and result in the development of more effective treatment strategies to reduce the effects of alcoholism.

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