Alcohol has a chemical effect on the brain that is obvious after just one drink. The short-term effects begin with slightly increased confidence and lowered inhibitions, which is often why people enjoy it in the first place. After a few more drinks, alcohol starts to take a less positive toll on the body, leading to slow reaction times, difficulty walking, slurred speech and even memory loss.
For most people, even if they suffer a lot of negative effects after one too many drinks, the effects wear off after the alcohol leaves their systems. However, the long term damage caused by repeated alcohol abuse is more severe and can be dangerous or even fatal. One of the ways in which alcohol leads to serious problems is the way in which it affects mental health.
One of the more common but less widely talked about side effects of heavy drinking is alcoholic dementia. Dementia is a degeneration of the cerebral cortex (the part of the brain concerned with making memories and regulating thoughts and personality). According to the Alzheimer’s Society, dementia affects roughly 1 in 14 people over the age of 65 in the UK, and 1 in 6 people over the age of 80, a number which is increasing over time simply because people are living longer.
Factors such as head injury, brain tumours and infections can also play a role in whether a person develops dementia. With alcoholic dementia, though, alcohol is the reason for the degeneration of the brain’s structure and processes. For this reason, prevention is possible and the process can be halted, but alcoholic dementia is very difficult to reverse so treatment sooner rather than later is the key.
Symptoms of alcoholic dementia
•Difficulty making decisions
•Problems with poor judgement and risk assessment
•Poor planning and organisational skills
•Difficulty controlling emotions
•Being less empathetic to others
•Socially inappropriate behaviour
Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome are two different conditions, caused by brain damage and a lack of vitamin B1, that often present together to create one syndrome.
Alcoholism is a common factor in those with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome because alcohol abuse causes lack of vitamin B1. For those suffering with the condition, Korsakoff syndrome usually starts to develop as the symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy go away, and once Korsakoff psychosis becomes apparent the damage to the brain is usually permanent.
Symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy include:
•Loss of muscle coordination (ataxia)
•Vision changes and abnormal eye movements, eyelids drooping
•Alcohol withdrawal symptoms
Symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome include:
•An inability to form new memories
•Loss of memory
•Making up stories
How does alcohol affect the brain?
The effects of inebriation are caused by the disruption of the balance of chemicals and processes in our brains. As mentioned before, in the short-term this creates extra confidence and lack of inhibition. However, those who abuse alcohol regularly cause their brains to start requiring alcohol in order to function at a ‘normal’ level. The more you drink, the more disruption there is, and the greater is the damage to your brain.
How different parts of the brain are affected by alcohol
Ventral striatum and prefrontal cortex
These parts of the brain are the areas which create the brain’s reward system, which makes things feel good and helps to create addiction. They are also in charge of regulating impulsive behaviours. When you have an alcoholic drink, this is the first area of the brain that is affected, making you feel less guarded, more relaxed, and more likely to behave in ways you would not do when sober.
In charge of making and storing memories, the hippocampus is more affected by alcohol the more you drink. This is why often people cannot remember the end of a night that they still have memories of the beginning of. Over time, this area can be permanently damaged, making it harder to make memories.
The cerebellum works in tandem with the primary motor cortex to control movement, balance and more complex motor functions. Alcohol affects this part of the brain by decreasing motor functions and slowing down reaction times.
The frontal lobe is in charge of your emotions which is why so many people that have had a lot to drink will find themselves excessively emotional, irritable or sexual. Over time, alcohol abuse can permanently affect your ability to control your emotions.
Reticular activating system
Part of the midbrain, this area of the brain controls sleeping and waking, and is why people who have abused alcohol will often find themselves passing out. To a lesser degree, this is also why people feel exhausted after a night of drinking, because any sleep that has been had isn’t quality, REM sleep.
The medulla controls physical functions such as breathing, or heartbeats. Heavy drinking can slow all of these functions and can actually be life-threatening.
Can you reverse alcohol brain damage?
There are certain areas of the brain that will recover if an alcoholic stops drinking, but for the most part, when the brain is damaged, this damage is permanent and irreversible. This is why it is so important that, if you are an addict, you get your issues dealt with as soon as possible.
In recovery you can be given medicines and nutrients which help your body to get back into shape and help you recuperate from the damage done by excess alcohol. Things like Wernicke-Karsakoff syndrome can be halted on ceasing to drink alcohol as well, and some symptoms may even improve over time.
It is important that you go to a dedicated rehabilitation centre for treatment for alcoholism, so that professional staff can help you to manage your detox safely and without risk to your health. It is extremely dangerous for an alcoholic to quit drinking cold turkey, and staff at a rehab centre know how to manage withdrawal so that it is done safely.
Ocean Recovery Centre provide a fantastic detox and rehabilitation programme for alcohol abuse sufferers, which helps not only with the physical side of detox but also with the mental health issues that are associated.
If you want to find out more, you can call 01253 847 553, or text HELP to 83222, and we’ll walk you through the next steps.
Posted on Tuesday, September 17th, 2019 at 11:17 am in Alcohol Addiction.