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Investigating How Alcohol Affects Memory, Decision-Making, and Overall Cognitive Abilities
Alcohol and Mental Health

Investigating How Alcohol Affects Memory, Decision-Making, and Overall Cognitive Abilities

June 25, 2024
8 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 25, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 25, 2024
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 25, 2024
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Reframe Content Team
June 25, 2024
8 min read

Alcohol consumption is a common social activity, yet its effects on the brain are profound and far-reaching. Understanding how alcohol impacts memory, decision-making, and cognitive abilities can help us make informed choices about drinking and foster healthier habits. This article delves into the psychological and emotional effects of alcohol, focusing on its influence on cognitive functions.

The Impact of Alcohol on Memory

Short-Term Memory Loss

Investigating How Alcohol Affects Memory, Decision-Making, and Overall Cognitive Abilities

Alcohol is known to impair short-term memory. When consumed, it acts as a central nervous system depressant, slowing down brain activity and disrupting communication between neurons. This can lead to short-term memory lapses, where individuals may forget what they were doing or saying moments earlier. Jogging Our Memory: Alcohol’s Role on Memory Loss provides a detailed exploration of how alcohol can cause both temporary and long-term memory loss, highlighting the importance of moderation to preserve cognitive functions.

Long-Term Memory Effects

Chronic alcohol consumption can have more severe consequences on long-term memory. Prolonged excessive drinking is associated with conditions such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a serious neurological disorder caused by thiamine deficiency, which leads to significant memory impairments and cognitive decline. This condition is often irreversible if not treated promptly, emphasizing the critical need for early intervention and continuous care.

Decision-Making and Executive Function

Impaired Judgment and Risky Behavior

Alcohol’s impact on the prefrontal cortex, the brain region responsible for executive functions like decision-making, impulse control, and long-term planning, is particularly concerning. When alcohol enters the bloodstream, it disrupts the normal functioning of this area, leading to impaired judgment and increased risk-taking behaviors. This is why individuals under the influence of alcohol are more likely to make poor decisions, engage in unsafe activities, and exhibit lack of restraint.

Long-Term Cognitive Impairments

Over time, heavy drinking can cause lasting damage to the prefrontal cortex, resulting in chronic impulsivity, mood disorders, and cognitive impairments. These long-term effects can significantly hinder an individual’s ability to function effectively in daily life, affecting their professional and personal relationships.

Overall Cognitive Abilities

Neurotransmitter Disruption

Alcohol affects several neurotransmitters in the brain, including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, and dopamine. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces neuronal excitability, while glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter that increases brain activity. Alcohol amplifies the inhibitory effects of GABA and suppresses the excitatory effects of glutamate, leading to a slowdown in brain activity and cognitive functions.

Dopamine and Reward System

Alcohol consumption also triggers a surge in dopamine activity, which is associated with pleasure and reward. However, repeated exposure to alcohol can dysregulate the brain’s dopamine response, leading to dependence and addiction. This cycle of seeking pleasure through alcohol consumption can cause significant cognitive and emotional disruptions. How Alcohol Affects the Brain, According to Science offers an in-depth analysis of how alcohol impacts various neurotransmitters and the brain’s reward system, highlighting the intricate balance of chemicals that govern our cognitive abilities.

Brain Damage and Cognitive Decline

Chronic alcohol use can lead to Alcohol-Related Brain Damage (ARBD), a condition characterized by a decline in cognitive functions, including memory, thinking, and understanding. Severe forms of ARBD, such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, cause serious problems with memory and thinking, similar to dementia. Alcohol and Brain Damage: Understand the Risks discusses the risks of alcohol-related brain damage, emphasizing the importance of protecting brain health through moderation and responsible drinking habits.

Reversing the Damage

Neuroplasticity and Recovery

The brain has a remarkable ability to repair itself, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. Abstinence from alcohol can help reverse some of the damage, particularly in cognition and motor skills. However, the extent of recovery depends on the severity and duration of alcohol abuse. Early intervention and consistent efforts to reduce or eliminate alcohol consumption are crucial for improving brain health.

Building Healthier Drinking Habits

Adopting mindful drinking practices can help minimize the risk of alcohol-related cognitive impairments. This includes setting limits on alcohol intake, avoiding binge drinking, and seeking support for reducing alcohol consumption. Apps like Reframe provide valuable tools and resources to help individuals build healthier drinking habits and understand the science behind alcohol’s effects on the brain.


Alcohol’s impact on memory, decision-making, and overall cognitive abilities is profound and multifaceted. By understanding the psychological and emotional effects of alcohol, we can make informed choices about our drinking habits and take steps to protect our brain health. Moderation, early intervention, and consistent efforts to reduce alcohol consumption are key to preserving cognitive functions and fostering a healthier relationship with alcohol.

Reframe Your Understanding

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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