The belief that alcohol kills brain cells is a persistent myth. Although it is a myth, it is an understandable one. A few drinks can can impair your coordination, speech, and judgment. You might wake up with a headache so bad you would swear you lost some brain cells. Alcohol’s effects on the brain are more complex. Alcohol appears to activate a specific kind of receptor in the brain called delta GABA receptors. These receptors are most concentrated in three specific areas–the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the cerebellum. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which means it makes neurons less responsive to electrical signals passed from other neurons. GABA essentially dampens activity in a certain part of the brain. When alcohol activates delta receptors in the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the cerebellum, it essentially turns down the volume of those areas. Decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex diminishes judgment and concentration, decreased activity in the cerebellum impairs physical coordination, and decreased activity in the hippocampus impairs your ability to turn short term memories into long term memories. This is why binge drinking can lead to blackouts, when you have no memory of what happened. Although the neurons in those areas are impeded, they are not killed. The effect is temporary. After the alcohol leaves your system and you are adequately hydrated, you brain pretty much goes back to normal. However, prolonged drinking can damage your brain. Studies have shown that even prolonged moderate drinking may cause you hippocampus to shrink, impairing your ability to learn. It’s not clear yet whether this is reversible, but it might be. Prolonged drinking can also damage the dendrites of your neurons. These are the branches that form connections with other neurons. Fewer dendrites means less connectivity and less efficient cognition. There are also indirect ways excessive drinking can damage your brain. It may cause damage to your digestive tract, which impairs the absorption of many vitamins and minerals. Deficiencies in these vitamins and minerals affect the brain in various ways. For example, severe vitamin B deficiencies can lead to depression, paranoia, hallucinations, and dementia. It so happens that excessive drinking inhibits the absorption of B vitamins in particular. If this continues long enough, you might develop a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which is characterized by severe memory loss, confusion, and impaired coordination. The thiamine deficiency from Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome actually can kill brain cells.
If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol addiction or mental illness, we can help. Recovery Ways is a premier drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility located in Salt Lake City, Utah. We have the resources to effectively treat a dual diagnosis. Our mission is to provide the most cost-effective, accessible substance abuse treatment to as many people as possible. Request information online or call us today at 1-888-986-7848.