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How Does Alcohol Addiction Affect the Brain?

How Does Alcohol Addiction Affect the Brain?

Alcohol affects the brain in the short term, but most of the effects of a night of heavy drinking disappear in a day or two. Prolonged heavy drinking, however, can cause longer lasting problems, some of them permanent.

Addiction itself is the problem. It’s the condition that drastically increases the likelihood of all the other problems. The brain changes permanently to seek the reward of alcohol. Once you start drinking, you can’t stop, and other problems promptly ensue.

The most common problem with alcohol addiction is difficulty with learning and memory. This is related to blackouts that sometimes result from binge drinking. Alcohol has a disproportionate effect on the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for turning short-term memories into long-term memories. In a blackout, the hippocampus is impaired to the point that memories cease to exist.

However, studies have shown that even relatively moderate regular drinking can damage the hippocampus. It’s one area of the brain that actually produces new neurons throughout life, but in regular moderate drinkers, this process slows or stops, which impairs learning and memory.

Over the longer term, regular heavy drinking shrinks the brain, which is visible on a brain scan. This is a common indicator of brain damage.  

Most alcoholics suffer from a thiamine, or B1 deficiency. This is partly caused by the alcohol, and partly caused by generally neglecting nutrition. Thiamine is important for many organs, including the brain. A long-term thiamine deficiency can lead to serious neurological problems, including Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This is actually two conditions that are closely related. Wernicke’s encephalopathy is a short-term condition that causes confusion, loss of control over eye movements, and loss of motor coordination.

Most people who develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy also develop Korsakoff’s psychosis. Korsakoff’s psychosis can cause difficulty walking or moving and impair recall of past events. It particularly makes it hard to remember new things. It’s like being blacked out all the time but Korsakoff’s patients seem to be aware of it because they are easily frustrated.

The effect of alcohol on the brain depends on how heavily you drink, how long you drink, when you started drinking, and your general health.

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