Alcohol on the brain

Originally Published: January 11, 2008
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Dear Alice,

I was wondering the rate at which alcohol induces brain damage, I know that over a course of years damage occurs, but does anything happen after about a month of drinking on weekends?

Dear Reader,

Although alcohol is known to slow many actions down, it's effects and impacts on the brain actually show up pretty quickly. A recent study on rats showed that just two days of binge drinking caused significant effect on area of the brain that controls the sense of smell. Damage was shown on other parts of the brain after only four consecutive days of drinking. Because this study was done on rats, it's hard to say how those findings should be translated in humans. Some scientists speculate this damage may be similar to what happens to humans who drink only on the weekends, as opposed to chronic heavy drinking. Additionally, drinking early in life can lead to other negative consequences such as being more sensitive to alcohol (and possibly more prone to alcoholism) later on.

So, the bad news is that one night of heavy drinking may cause spatial reasoning, long-term memory, impulse control, and decision-making skills to be impaired. These effects may or may not persist even after all the alcohol has left the drinker's body, because alcohol can kill brain cells (neurons). Unlike other cells in the body, brain cells do not get repaired nor replaced upon damage or death. However, the good news is that human brains have a great deal of flexibility and adaptability and can make new neural connections when other neurons are killed (by alcohol or other types of brain damage). So even if drinking alcohol leads to some neuronal death, this doesn't mean that you will end up brain dead, even if that's what you feel like the morning after.

Despite this "good" news, it's probably best to not overdo alcohol very often, because heavy use can also impair learning and cognitive function. This can then have a detrimental effect on your academic or professional performance, and even your personal life. Drinking moderately, that is keeping yourself to 4 or fewer drinks (over the course of several hours) on any given occasion, is one good way to engage in healthier drinking. For more information about using alcohol safely, read Hangover helper — and tips for healthy drinking and the Related Q&As below.

You may find it useful to experiment with safer drinking strategies, such as alternating alcoholic drinks with water or having some food before and during drinking. Keeping track of any negative side effects from drinking (memory loss, feeling ill the next morning, etc.) may also help you get a handle on how much you can handle. Your concern about alcohol shows you are paying attention to your health. Best of luck finding healthy drinking strategies that work for you.