Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

Last Updated: April 30, 2024

Alcohol has the potential to damage or even kill brain cells. It has been shown to reduce the size of brain tissue as well as increase the risk of several neurological diseases and conditions. Alcohol also leads to other health problems that can cause brain damage. For example, drinking elevates your blood pressure. While this does not damage the brain, it does increase the risk of having a brain-damaging stroke.

If you or someone you love struggles with drinking, it’s important to be aware of the potential impact that alcohol can have on the brain.

Understanding Moderate, Heavy and Binge Drinking

There are several different levels of drinking, and each can affect your risk of brain damage. Levels of drinking are defined differently for men and women, as men metabolize alcohol much more quickly than women. As a result, a smaller amount of alcohol creates a larger effect in women.

Different levels of drinking include:

  • Moderate drinking: Defined as two drinks or less per day for men and one drink per day or less for women.
  • Heavy drinking: Defined as more than fourteen drinks per week for men and more than seven drinks per week for women.
  • Binge drinking: Defined as five alcoholic drinks or more in two hours for men and four drinks or more in two hours for women.

Can Moderate Alcohol Use Cause Brain Damage?

There is some debate on whether moderate drinking is completely safe or not. Some research shows that even moderate drinking will cause brain damage over the long term; however, this is a newer idea that is still being studied.

Overall, moderate alcohol use is less likely to cause brain damage than heavy drinking or binge drinking, but it may still cause some damage. However, it is important to consider that moderate drinking is only one step away from heavier alcohol use. Someone can still develop an alcohol addiction when they originally intended to only drink moderately.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

Alcohol affects the brain by stimulating GABA receptors. These receptors calm and slow neurological activity, causing the sedating effect that is experienced with alcohol use. However, alcohol also has many other effects on the brain.

Short-Term Effects

The short-term effects of alcohol on the brain are primarily due to the action of alcohol on GABA receptors. Alcohol interacts with these receptors to create its short-term effects. At low doses, this will cause effects that are more psychological, such as improved mood and decreased inhibition. As the amount of alcohol increases, however, it causes effects that are more neurological. These can include decreased coordination and cognitive processing. In high doses, alcohol can even inhibit breathing and consciousness.

Long-Term Effects

The long-term effects of alcohol are related to a variety of factors, including constant overstimulation of the GABA receptors, the toxic effects of alcohol and secondary alcohol effects.

Brain Shrinkage

Heavy alcohol use has been shown to decrease the volume of your brain. This effect is partly due to the dehydration that alcohol causes in the brain, but it is also thought to be related to the damage or death of cells in the brain. Decreased brain volume is connected with many neurological problems and is a form of brain damage caused by alcohol.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a very serious form of brain damage caused by alcohol use. This condition occurs because alcohol inhibits how vitamin B1 (thiamine) is absorbed. The brain needs thiamine to function correctly, and decreased levels of thiamine can cause inflammation in the brain that leads to permanent damage.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be treated if thiamine is given while inflammation is present, but brain damage caused by this inflammation cannot be treated. The permanent damage caused by Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can lead to symptoms like severe memory loss and hallucinations.

Memory Loss

Alcohol use can lead to memory loss by causing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, but it can also cause alcohol-related dementia. This condition is a progressive form of dementia that only occurs when alcohol is used heavily over prolonged periods of time.


Many people think of dependence as being a behavioral problem, but it is actually related to neurology. When alcohol is used heavily and frequently, the GABA receptors are constantly overstimulated. In an effort to maintain balance, the body gradually reduces the sensitivity of these receptors. This keeps the brain balanced despite the constant presence of alcohol, but it causes severe disruptions when alcohol is stopped. This is what causes dependence and leads to withdrawal symptoms.


Alcohol can also have a number of secondary effects, including injuries. It is estimated that as many as 50% of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are alcohol-related. These injuries are permanent and can cause effects that range from having slight cognitive problems to being completely comatose. The impaired judgment, reduced inhibition and decreased coordination caused by alcohol all combine to increase the risk of TBIs.

Does Drinking Alcohol Lower Your IQ?

Research shows that alcohol use lowers your IQ in a way that is proportional to how much you drink. The impact of this effect is more prevalent in those who drink heavily or binge drink. The brain continues to develop into young adulthood, and adolescents may be more susceptible to the neurological effects of alcohol use.

Can Brain Damage From Alcohol Be Reversed?

Many types of brain damage caused by alcohol use can be reversed, but not all. Decreased brain volume will eventually heal if drinking is stopped. Alcohol-related dementia is also likely to partially or even fully resolve when drinking is stopped. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be reversed if caught and treated in its early stages, but damage caused in later stages cannot be reversed. TBIs caused by alcohol use are often not reversible.

While not all forms of brain damage from alcohol can be reversed, stopping alcohol is still always recommended. Even if stopping alcohol will not reverse brain damage that has occurred, it will help to reduce the risk of further damage.

How Long Does It Take for Your Brain To Heal From Alcohol?

The neurological recovery from alcohol will vary significantly based on the individual and the type of damage that has occurred. Dependence will fully reverse itself in two weeks in most individuals, but recovery from alcohol-related dementia may take weeks or even months.

Recovery will depend on the health of the individual, how long they have used alcohol and many other factors specific to them. Someone who has questions about how their brain will recover from alcohol should speak with a doctor about their specific situation.

Finding Help for Alcohol Abuse and Addiction in Orlando

Long-term alcohol use significantly increases the risk of brain damage. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse, there is an increased risk of developing brain damage that could become permanent.

At Orlando Recovery Center, we provide a variety of high-quality alcohol addiction treatment services. Our full continuum of care includes medical detox to help you comfortably and safely withdraw from alcohol and rehab programs that help you learn how to maintain sobriety.

Alcohol addiction can be difficult to recover from alone, but our experts can help you address your alcohol use and begin a life free from addiction. Contact us today to learn more about alcohol addiction treatment programs that can work well for your situation.


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