Alcohol and Brain Damage

Last Updated: April 11, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Anyone who has ever felt even a little bit tipsy has experienced the power that alcohol has over the brain. After one or two drinks, you might feel a little less inhibited, 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’re also a clear indicator of 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, which can ultimately change your behavior and lead to alcohol brain damage. The effects can be devastating, but there’s hope in recovery. With abstinence, your brain can heal and reduce some of the effects.

Can Alcohol Cause Brain Damage?

Brain damage caused by alcohol should be a serious concern for anyone who imbibes — casual and heavy drinkers alike. 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.

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. 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, like thiamine deficiencies for example, can contribute to the damaging effects alcohol has on the brain.
  • Family history: Alcohol may cause brain damage more often in someone with a family history of alcohol use disorder. Research suggests that your family history affects your tolerance and the level of consumption necessary to feel the effects. It also has the potential to affect your brain’s brain electrical activity.

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 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 is the result of long-term effects that heavy consumption has 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.

  • Does alcohol affect the brain right away? Your brain is affected by alcohol as soon as it hits your bloodstream.
  • How much alcohol does it take to cause brain damage? There’s no one-size-fits-all answers to that question. However, one thing remains clear: the more alcohol you consume, the more likely you’ll damage your brain.
  • Can alcohol poisoning cause brain damage? Alcohol overdoses can cause permanent damage and can even be fatal. The higher your blood alcohol concentration (BAC), the higher your risk of overdose.

Alcohol Induced Brain Damage Symptoms

When you drink, it slows your nerve cells. In turn, your brain pushes the cells to move faster. That push-pull action leads your brain to eventually rely on alcohol to function at the right speed. This is a big part of why some people with alcohol use disorder need to have a drink to kick-start their day. Additionally, the cascade of changes that alcohol consumption sets off in the body creates two main categories of alcohol brain damage symptoms: short-term and long-term.

Short-Term Alcohol Induced Brain Damage Symptoms

Short-term, alcohol consumption changes the brain’s levels of neurotransmitters. These are, the chemicals that carry signals from your brain to the rest of your body to help control physical activity, your mental outlook and your behavior. It speeds up neurotransmitters that help create feelings of well-being while slowing those that help you speak clearly and react quickly. Common symptoms include:

  • Mood changes and depression
  • Lower energy levels, sleepiness
  • Less inhibition, exercising poor decision making skills
  • Delayed reflexes and loss of motor control

Long-Term Alcohol Induced Brain Damage Symptoms

While short-term effects typically wear off, brain damage from alcohol symptoms could be serious in the long-term. It can accelerate aging and create symptoms like:

  • Confusion that extends beyond intoxication
  • Memory problems
  • Balance issues
  • Malnourishment and weight loss
  • Decreased organizational skills
  • Mood/personality changes
  • Cognitive decline

Does Alcohol Cause Permanent Brain Damage?

Does alcohol cause permanent brain damage? Possibly. Scientists hold out hope that some of the damage can be treated or reversed. But that’s not always the case. The repeated damage caused by excessive drinking over a long period of time can have a cumulative effect. For example, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a condition linked with permanent brain damage from alcohol, causes symptoms like:

  • Dementia
  • Jerky eye movements
  • Hallucinations
  • Personality changes

Brain damage caused by alcohol is not permanent in all cases. For example, researchers found that with previously damaged areas of the brain start lighting up on brain scans, where they were previously dark and inactive. This suggests that allowing your brain time to heal while abstaining from alcohol can indeed improve some brain damage, although there may be limits to the improvement.

How to Reverse Brain Damage from Alcohol

Just how much alcohol brain damage is reversible is a hot subject in the field. Researchers found that brain damage caused by alcohol consumption included damage to the white matter in the brain’s frontal region and right hemisphere. The changes were still evident even six weeks after research subjects stopped consuming alcohol, shattering previous beliefs that damage stopped as soon as someone stops drinking.

But there’s good news too. Scientists have found that brain cells continue growing throughout adulthood. With abstinence, you could produce thousands of new brain cells every month, which could potentially help reverse some of the effects of alcohol induced brain damage over time.

Treatment for alcohol-related brain damage varies depending on the severity of the damage. In the early stages, exercise and nutrition can help keep you strong in your recovery and address nutritional deficiencies that can worsen brain damage. In more advanced cases, treatment may include taking steps to stabilize your medical condition with sedation, fluid replacement and thiamine injections.

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


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