A glass of wine with dinner. A celebratory shot with our friends. A glass of liquor before bed. Alcohol weaves its way into our lives, showing up in social settings, at mealtimes, and in even our efforts to unwind. While we may be seeking short-term pleasure in these instances, we’re actually causing long-term damage to our bodies. In fact, alcohol use can impair our cognitive health, leading to long-term memory problems and even serious conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

So, what exactly is going on here? Is alcohol killing off our brain cells? The answer is both yes and no: the relationship between alcohol and our brain cells is quite complex. In this blog post, we'll explore the science behind how alcohol affects the brain, examining both the short- and long-term consequences, and debunking some myths along the way.

Alcohol's Effects on the Brain: The Basics

To better understand alcohol's impact on the brain, let's begin with a fundamental question: What exactly is alcohol? Ethanol, the type of alcohol found in the beverages we’re familiar with, is a central nervous system depressant, which means it slows down brain activity. When we consume alcohol, it quickly enters our bloodstream and reaches our brain, where it influences a variety of neurotransmitters — chemical messengers that play essential roles in transmitting signals within the brain.

Two key neurotransmitters affected by alcohol are gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate. Alcohol enhances the effects of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter responsible for reducing neuron excitability, leading to slowed reactions, impaired memory, and drowsiness. On the other hand, alcohol inhibits the effects of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter that plays a role in learning and memory. The result is a reduction in overall brain activity and a short-term feeling of relaxation.

However, when we continuously consume alcohol, these neurotransmitter systems can become disrupted, leading to impaired memory, slower reaction times, and altered emotional states. Over time, these disruptions can contribute to more severe neurological and psychological issues.

The Myth of Killing Brain Cells

Contrary to popular belief, mild alcohol consumption does not directly kill brain cells. The process of apoptosis, or programmed cell death, occurs naturally in the brain, and while alcohol can have adverse effects on the brain, it does not trigger this process. This myth likely originated from studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, which found that heavy alcohol consumption led to a reduction in brain mass. However, these studies were unable to differentiate between brain cell death and other factors that could account for the reduction in brain mass, such as dehydration and a decrease in the number of connections between neurons, known as synapses.

Synaptic Plasticity: The Real Concern

While alcohol may not directly kill brain cells, it can have a significant impact on synaptic plasticity, the brain's ability to form and maintain connections between neurons. Synaptic plasticity is crucial for learning, memory, and overall cognitive function. Research has shown that chronic alcohol consumption can lead to a reduction in synaptic plasticity, which can result in cognitive deficits.

A 2020 study demonstrated that alcohol consumption could impair the brain's ability to form new synapses. The researchers exposed rats to alcohol and found that it negatively affected the rats' ability to learn new tasks, indicating a reduction in synaptic plasticity. Another 2015 study in Neuroscience Letters revealed similar results, showing that alcohol could disrupt the process of synaptic remodeling, which is essential for learning and memory.

Furthermore, alcohol can have a significant impact on the formation of new neurons. This process, known as neurogenesis, is responsible for creating new neurons in specific regions of our brains throughout our lives. Studies have shown that excessive alcohol consumption can impair neurogenesis, leading to a reduced number of new neurons being formed. This can contribute to cognitive decline and may make it more difficult for our brains to recover from injury or stress.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Chronic, heavy alcohol consumption can have severe long-term effects on the brain. Here are a few of the major causes for concern.

Cognitive Decline

One of the most alarming effects of chronic alcohol consumption is the decline in cognitive abilities. Prolonged alcohol use can impair critical brain functions such as memory, attention, problem-solving, and decision-making. This decline can manifest as difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, and struggles with tasks that once seemed simple. Over time, these cognitive impairments can interfere with our ability to perform daily activities, maintain relationships, and succeed in our careers. Research has shown that some cognitive deficits related to alcohol misuse may be reversible with sustained abstinence — which is why it’s essential to recognize and address the issue early to minimize potential long-term damage.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is a severe neurological disorder often associated with heavy alcohol use. This condition results from a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1), essential for proper brain function. WKS is characterized by two distinct stages: Wernicke's encephalopathy, which presents as confusion, unsteady gait, and abnormal eye movements, followed by Korsakoff's psychosis, which includes severe memory impairment, confabulation (inventing memories to fill gaps), and difficulty with coordination. Treatment for WKS typically involves high doses of thiamine and other supportive measures. However, recovery can be slow and incomplete, with some individuals experiencing lasting cognitive and motor deficits.

Altered Neurotransmitter Balance

In addition to GABA and glutamate, chronic alcohol misuse can disrupt the delicate balance of key neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are essential for regulating mood, motivation, and overall brain function. Heavy alcohol use can lead to imbalances in these neurotransmitter systems, resulting in a variety of psychological symptoms. For example, alcohol-induced dopamine imbalances can contribute to the development of mood disorders like depression, while disruptions in serotonin signaling can increase the risk of anxiety and other psychiatric conditions. Restoring neurotransmitter balance is a crucial component of recovery for those of us struggling with alcohol misuse.

Increased Risk of Neurodegenerative Diseases

Heavy alcohol use can contribute to brain inflammation and oxidative stress, increasing the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Inflammation is a natural immune response, but chronic inflammation in the brain can damage neurons and disrupt neural communication. Similarly, oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body, leading to cellular damage. Chronic alcohol consumption can exacerbate both inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain, potentially accelerating the progression of neurodegenerative diseases and worsening cognitive decline.

Structural Brain Damage

Prolonged alcohol misuse can lead to structural changes in the brain, such as the shrinkage of brain regions responsible for cognitive functions. Studies have shown that heavy alcohol use can reduce the size of the hippocampus (a brain region critical for memory and learning) and the prefrontal cortex (which plays a role in executive functions like planning, decision-making, and impulse control). These structural changes can result in long-lasting impairments in brain function. While some degree of recovery is possible with abstinence, the potential for complete reversal may be limited in severe cases.

Improve Your Brain Health With Reframe

Brain health is one of the most talked about wellness topics these days, and for good reason! We now know that optimal brain function protects us from memory issues and cognitive challenges down the road. Excessive alcohol consumption isn’t conducive to optimal brain health, as it can disrupt synaptic connection and hinder neurogenesis.

However, by taking steps to maintain a healthy brain, it’s possible to reverse many of the negative effects brought about by excessive alcohol consumption.

If you’re ready to take your health to the next level and change (or end) your relationship with alcohol for good, then you’re in the right place. At Reframe, we take a compassionate, stigma-free approach to helping people unlock their full potential. From our neuroscience-based daily activities to our anonymous 24/7 Forum chat, we’ve got plenty of opportunities for you to start learning and changing for the better.

Plus, with monthly challenges, you’ll receive the support and accountability from other Reframers to build healthy, long-lasting habits. Our team is here to cheer you on and answer your questions every step of the way, too. So, take that first big step and unlock a healthier, more resilient you!

With 2.1 million downloads (and counting!), we’re slowly reframing what it means to be sober or sober-curious. Head to our app and begin your personalized journey today! We’re excited for you to join our incredible community!