Alcohol-Related Brain Damage (ARBD): Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Last Updated: September 22, 2023

Anyone who has ever felt even a little bit tipsy has experienced the power alcohol has over the brain. You might feel less inhibited after one or two drinks, with slower reaction times, slurred speech and coordination problems increasing as you consume more alcohol. Although it’s easy to wave these effects off as minor, temporary side effects, they also indicate the potential link between alcohol and brain damage.

Your central nervous system, which includes your brain, spinal cord and the network of neurons that carry information to other parts of your body (like your muscles and limbs), is sensitive to the effects of alcohol. Over time, it can change things on a cellular level, ultimately altering your behavior and leading to alcohol brain damage. The effects can be devastating, but there’s hope for recovery. With abstinence, your brain may be able to heal and reduce some of the effects.

Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) is a medical term but does not technically refer to a specific condition. Rather, it is an umbrella term that refers to any brain damage caused by alcohol use. This can include nerve damage caused by alcohol, vitamin deficiencies that occur with alcohol use and lead to brain damage and even physical trauma to the brain due to being drunk. 

Can Alcohol Cause Brain Damage?

Yes. In fact, research published by NIAAA suggests that approximately 50% of people with alcohol use disorder in the U.S. have some level of neuropsychological problems. 

Brain damage caused by alcohol should be a serious concern for anyone who drinks — casual and heavy drinkers alike. The brain is easily affected by alcohol, and alcohol can have many different impacts on the brain. As the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) notes, brain impairment is noticeable after one or two drinks, although those effects are typically short-term.

Risk Factors for Alcohol and Brain Damage

The extent of the effect alcohol has on the brain depends on numerous factors, including the following:

  • Frequency: The amount you drink, how often you drink and the length of time you’ve been drinking alcohol impact your risk for potential brain damage.
  • Your age, sex and genetics: Researchers have found that women are more susceptible to alcohol’s damaging effects, possibly including changes to the brain. Your brain is also more vulnerable if you were exposed to alcohol in utero and as you age.
  • Your general health: Some health conditions can contribute to the damaging effects alcohol has on the brain.

How Does Alcohol Cause Brain Damage?

Alcohol can damage your brain in many ways:

  • Wet brain: This condition, known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, comes from heavy alcohol use. It’s due to a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency created by alcohol, causing mental confusion, balance issues and severe memory problems. This condition can be reversed if treated early but will eventually become permanent.
  • Traumatic brain injury: Drinking alcohol can cause you to lose balance and coordination while impairing judgment. This increases the risk of falls and accidents, resulting in traumatic brain injuries. These injuries can lead to long-term physical and cognitive problems that may be permanent.
  • Stroke: Drinking too much alcohol can cause high blood pressure and irregular heartbeats, known risk factors for stroke. A stroke happens when your brain doesn’t get enough blood, starving your brain cells of the oxygen and nutrients they need to survive, potentially causing severe and irreversible brain damage.
  • Lack of oxygen: Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short time can lead to alcohol poisoning. This can make you unconscious or put you in a coma, causing your breathing to become irregular or even stop. This lack of oxygen can cause serious brain damage or even death.
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome: This condition occurs when a woman consumes alcohol during pregnancy. The alcohol can cross the placenta and harm the developing fetus’s brain, leading to physical, behavioral and cognitive abnormalities. The brain damage caused by fetal alcohol syndrome is irreversible and can permanently impact an individual’s life.

How Much Alcohol Does It Take To Cause Brain Damage?

For people who choose to drink, the Centers for Disease Control recommends consuming no more than one drink (an alcoholic beverage containing 14 grams of alcohol) daily for women and two drinks daily or fewer for men. The more you consume, the greater the risk of adverse effects. Brain damage caused by alcohol abuse results from the long-term effects of heavy consumption on your central nervous system.

Studies suggest that heavy drinking over the years can shrink brain volume, cause faster age-related memory loss and increase your tolerance, which typically leads to higher consumption levels and increased brain damage.

Can One Night of Drinking Cause Brain Damage? 

Yes, a single night of drinking can cause brain damage. While it might not cause some conditions, like wet brain or a stroke, a single night of drinking can lead to impairment that causes a traumatic brain injury caused by alcohol. A single drink by someone pregnant can cause fetal alcohol syndrome, leading to permanent brain damage for a developing child. No amount of alcohol can be safely used without risking some form of brain damage, which can result from a single night of drinking.

Disorders Linked to ARBD

Alcohol can have a profound impact on the brain, leading to a range of disorders with varying symptoms. These disorders include Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, hepatic encephalopathy, peripheral neuropathy and cerebellar atrophy.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is a severe form of alcohol-related brain damage. It is caused by a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) in the body, which is a result of long-term heavy drinking. WKS is made up of two separate elements: Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis.

Symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include:

  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Numbness in the hands and feet
  • Rapid random eye movements (sometimes called ‘dancing eyes’)
  • Blurred vision
  • Poor balance and unsteady walking

Symptoms of Korsakoff’s psychosis include:

  • Memory loss
  • Apathy
  • Confusion about where they are and about the passage of time

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a condition that occurs in a child whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. This can cause brain damage and growth problems in the child.

Symptoms of FAS include:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Behavioral problems
  • Physical abnormalities such as a smaller head, shorter-than-average height and low body weight

Hepatic Encephalopathy

Hepatic encephalopathy is a decline in brain function that occurs as a result of severe liver disease. In this condition, your liver can’t adequately remove toxins from your blood, causing them to build up in your bloodstream and eventually your brain.

Symptoms of hepatic encephalopathy include:

  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Shortened attention span
  • Personality changes or mood swings
  • Poor judgment
  • Difficulty with coordination, including handwriting

Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy is a result of damage to your peripheral nerves, often causing weakness, numbness and pain, usually in your hands and feet. It can also affect other areas of your body.

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy include:

  • Gradual onset of numbness, prickling or tingling in your feet or hands
  • Sharp, jabbing, throbbing, freezing or burning pain
  • Extreme sensitivity to touch
  • Lack of coordination and falling

Cerebellar Atrophy

Cerebellar atrophy, or cerebellar degeneration, is a condition characterized by the wasting away of cells in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls muscle coordination. This can be caused by chronic alcohol abuse.

Symptoms of cerebellar atrophy include:

  • Difficulty with movement and coordination, including walking and picking up objects
  • Unsteady and uncoordinated movements
  • Speech difficulties
  • Involuntary back-and-forth eye movements
  • Difficulty swallowing

Remember, these symptoms can vary from mild to severe, and most people with alcohol-related brain damage will experience some rather than all of them. Many of these symptoms can improve or even disappear over time with proper care and treatment.

Does Alcohol Cause Permanent Brain Damage?

Yes, but not necessarily for everyone. The permanency of brain damage caused by alcohol depends on the type of brain damage that alcohol caused. Some types, like fetal alcohol syndrome, will be permanent no matter what. Others, like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, can be reversed if treated early. Strokes and traumatic brain injuries will generally be permanent to some extent, but a degree of recovery can certainly occur. 

Treating Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

Treatment for alcohol-related brain damage differs depending on the severity and type of damage. Some types of alcohol-related brain damage can be completely reversed if treated early. Others will require ongoing therapy and medical treatments to promote even a partial recovery. Some forms of brain damage caused by alcohol will be permanent, even with the best treatments. Ultimately stopping alcohol is typically the most important step someone can take to stop the progression of alcohol-related brain damage. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol addiction, Orlando Recovery Center is here to help. We’ll create a comprehensive treatment program to address the addiction and any co-occurring mental health disorders. Call today to start taking control of your recovery.


Alzheimer’s Society. “Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD): what is it and who gets it?” 2023. Accessed June 6, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “What Is A Standard Drink?” 2023. Accessed June 6, 2023.

Ferenci, Peter. “Hepatic encephalopathy.” Gastroenterology Report, April 18, 2017. Accessed July 17, 2023.

Campellone, Joseph V.; Zieve, David; Conaway, Brenda. “Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.” Reviewed January 23, 2022. Accessed July 17, 2023.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Peripheral Neuropathy.” Reviewed March 13, 2023. Accessed July 17, 2023.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Cerebellar Degeneration.” Reviewed January 20, 2023. Accessed July 17, 2023.

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