The Effects Of Alcohol On Our Brains

Did you ever wonder what happens to your brain when you chug a couple of tequila shots?

What are the short and long term alcohol effects on the brain?

In this article, we’re going to figure that out.

As we all know, alcohol can be fun. It often facilitates the socializing process at parties, avoids awkward silences and it can be a good source of laughter. However, a lot of people stay unaware of the neuroscience behind all this.

So how does that neuroscience look like?

To start off: alcohol affects the receptor sites of our neurotransmitters, i.e. brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our body. When you drink alcohol, this communication — which normally happens organized — gets disoriented.

It is important to know that there are two types of neurotransmitters: excitatory and inhibitory ones. The excitatory neurotransmitters stimulate brain activity and energy levels, while inhibitory neurotransmitters decrease brain activity and energy levels.

The question is: What does alcohol have to do with all this?

Let’s have a look at the three most important neurotransmitters and the effect alcohol has on them: glutamate, GABA and dopamine.

Take, for example, the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Alcohol suppresses the production of glutamate, resulting in an overall slowdown of your brain activity. That’s why drinking alcohol often goes hand in hand with slower body movements and speech. This is because the brain doesn’t send accurate signals anymore to your muscles.

There’s another neurotransmitter to be discussed: GABA. This is what scientist call a ‘downer’ or inhibitory neurotransmitter. It reduces energy levels and calms the brain down. Alcohol significantly increased the effects of GABA, again slowing down your train of thought.

As we’ve seen so far, the effects of alcohol on the brain are suppressing. Alcohol suppresses brain activity, often resulting in slowed down movements, speech and thought. That is why we tend to stumble, stutter and move in a unnatural way when we are drunk.

But do we get drunk for this suppressed feeling? Not really.

The last neurotransmitter — dopamine — is probably the number one reason why most people get hooked on the bottle. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that lights up the reward centers of the brain when engaging in ‘pleasurable’ activities such as hanging out with friends, getting a bonus at work, etc. Alcohol increases the release of dopamine in the brain, causing you to feel happy.

On the long term, this neurotransmitter is the most dangerous. As a beginning drinker, you often unconsciously try to feel better and release more dopamine. As you drink more and more, the dopamine effect eventually starts to diminish. In other words: you need more alcohol to have the same effect of the initial dopamine release. This is where the risk of addiction kicks in.

Of course, we must take into consideration that the effect of alcohol on the brain depends on several factors, such as:

1. How much and how often a person drinks

2. The number of years a person has been drinking during his/her life

3. The person’s sex, age, and genetic composition

4. The person’s family background

5. The person’s overall health

These factors can influence the role alcohol plays in affecting brain activity.

Taking this into consideration, let’s have a look at which specific parts of the brain get influenced by alcohol consumption.

Firstly, the cerebral cortex. This is a part of the brain that is responsible for processing your thoughts and consciousness. When you drink alcohol, the behavioral inhibitory centers get suppressed, causing the thought processes to slow down and be less inhibited. Therefore, it is often very hard to think clearly when under influence.

A second part of the brain that gets affected by alcohol is the cerebellum. This is the brain center managing balance and movements. Drinking alcohol shuts this center down, often resulting in a sluggish and off-balance swagger.

Thirdly, the hypothalamus and pituitary are affected. These parts of the brain control and coordinate automatic brain functions and hormone releases. When you drink alcohol, the nerve cells in the hypothalamus get suppressed, making you lose control over your sexual desires and urges. That’s why people tend to have a stronger desire for sexual experiences when they’re drunk.

Lastly, alcohol affects the medulla. This is the part of the brain that controls automatic functions such as breathing, body temperature and conscious thinking. When drinking alcohol, we interfere these automatic responses. As a result, your breathing can slow down significantly or your body temperature can get very high.

As we’ve seen: drinking alcohol clearly affects our brains. Although dopamine may feel very good, we should be cautious for other, more dangerous side-effects. The loss of control over bodily impulses and movements may cause you trouble in the short term. Alcohol can also result in black-outs, since the substance interferes with our conscious thinking capabilities.

We can conclude that the excessive consumption of alcohol and its effects on the brain are problematic, since most of the effects are highly unpredictable, both in the short and long term.

By Anthony Perez