How Alcohol Affects The Brain


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and fact-checked by an addiction expert.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and fact-checked by an addiction expert.

Table of Contents

Alcohol use is common. But is it safe? It’s important to understand the impact it can have, including how alcohol affects the brain. 

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The Prevalence of Alcohol in America

Research conducted in 2019 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism showed that 14.51 million people- 12 and above- were diagnosed with an Alcohol Use Disorder, out of which 414,0001 individuals were between 12-17 years old.

Considering this statistic, the threat of increasing alcohol use is visible. When the habit begins at such a young age, it affects the workings of the brain and can lead to lifelong issues with cognition, memory, emotions, and mental health.

Considering this statistic, the threat of increasing numbers of alcohol use is visible. When the habit begins at such a young age, it affects the workings of the brain and can lead to lifelong issues with cognition, memory, emotions, and mental health.

Alcohol Is A Depressant That Affects The Brain

Our brain processes are run on various chemicals and hormones that help maintain the normal functioning of the body as well. When we drink alcohol, the substance absorbs into our blood and travels to the brain, suppressing the frontal lobe.

The frontal lobe is responsible for the optimal functioning of our cognition, stability, memory, and judgments.

The functionining abilities are impaired in those who drink alcohol since they often have an abnormal gait, slur their words, make bad decisions, and don’t tend to remember anything they did while under the influence.

With consistent use, alcohol starts suppressing this part of the brain that affects our thoughts, actions, and emotions. It also affects the transport of chemicals and hormones from the brain to the body and vice versa.

With its depressant qualities, alcohol is often used to calm the mind or ease anxiety. When an individual starts using a substance to combat an issue, it tends to create a quick dependency.

Long-term use can damage the brain’s functions by causing them to slow down even without the help of a drink.

Hence, the relaxed and calm feeling we experience due to alcohol use is because of its depressant quality and the changes of chemicals it causes.

With consistent use, these effects can manifest in physical inadequacy, emotional distress, and mental disorders.

Most importantly, it can lead to addiction and alcohol dependency, damaging every aspect of our lives, including ourselves.

A study by the National Library of Medicine found that alcohol can also cause the shrinkage of our hippocampus- a complex part of our brain responsible for learning and memory.

After following participants for 30 years, the results showed that those who drank more than four drinks daily had a six times higher2 risk of shrinking their brains than non-alcoholics.

It Impairs Judgment, Coordination, And Balance

We have established that the use of alcohol has a severe impact on our brains, which in turn affects the rest of our bodies. The effects of alcohol use are easily visible through an individual’s impaired judgment, coordination, and balance.

How often have you had to help walk straight after a night of drinking or stop them from doing something harmful? That is the work of alcohol on the brain.

Impaired Judgment

Drinking in large amounts can change our thought processes and makes us less aware of our unacceptable social behavior. We stop caring about what others will think or whether an act is moral; hence we lose our good judgment and no longer think clearly. That also explains the changes in the behavior of individuals when drunk or sober and why many individuals feel guilty after a night out.

Loss Of Balance And Coordination

Alcohol suppresses the part of our brain that allows us to be in coordination with our body. When the senses are disturbed, we experience a loss of balance and coordination in walking and moving our body, and it often looks like we are flailing. This usually happens when we drink more than our body weight.

Lowered Inhibitions

We often become quite talkative and confident after a few drinks. This is because alcohol suppresses our brain and stimulates it to release anxiety and lower our inhibitions.

Heavy use can result in this, and we soon start showing classic symptoms of being drunk.

Alcohol Can Cause Blackouts And Memory Loss

Memory loss and blackouts are common side effects of drinking heavily. This is because their conscious brain is suppressed to the point where it is no longer making long-term memories. Any conversation held or activity done will be forgotten the minute the alcohol leaves your body.

A blackout occurs when an individual drinks high amounts of alcohol in short periods. This impacts the transfer of memories within our brains, resulting in amnesia. Our brain is no longer capable of recalling previous events that have occurred.

Types of Alcoholic Blackouts

En Bloc Blackouts are where there has been no transfer of memories from short-term to long-term storage. No details have been stored regarding what you did, who you met, or any conversation you had. Even if you try to remember what happened with the help of others detailing the event, you wouldn’t be able to do so.

Fragmentary Blackouts are where the individual remembers glimpses of the events but does not fully remember what happened. Some parts of your memories are shifted to long-term storage, but there are considerable gaps between those memories. You might be able to put two and two together to get a general idea of the events that occurred or ask your friends to remind you, but it won’t be stored as a memory.

Much research has shown that this is directly correlated to the amount of blood alcohol in your body. If you drink more than your weight, you are bound to face the effects of it. Reaching the concentration of 0.16 on a BAC is a sure way to blackout.

This can differ for everyone depending on their tolerance, whether they were drinking on an empty stomach, having a lower body weight, using medications that induce sleep, or if you are a woman.

Long-Term Alcohol Abuse Can Lead To Permanent Damage To The Brain

A medical condition commonly observed as a side effect of long-term alcohol abuse is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome3 is a brain-damaging disease with multiple forms of dementia- one related to alcohol use disorder (AUD). This disorder can cause malnourishment in an individual and lead to many bodily deficiencies, such as vitamin B1.

This is perhaps the most significant side-effect of long-term drinking. It damages the brain to the point where it no longer functions normally. The disease shows its manifestations as;

  • Confusion
  • Eye Muscle Paralysis
  • Loss Of Muscle Coordination
  • Diminished Learning Ability
  • Forgetfulness

Another permanent damage experienced is when the mother suffers from an AUD while pregnant with the child. The mother is likely to continue her regular consumption of alcohol during pregnancy as well, which can result in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This can result in miscarriage, developmental disorder, and even stillbirth.

Even if the baby is born, they suffer from;

  • Head Smaller Than Average Size
  • Abnormal Features
  • Hyperactivity
  • Short Height And Underweight
  • Reduced Learning Ability
  • Low IQ
  • Sleep And Sucking Problems During Infancy
  • Poor Vision Or Hearing
  • Heart, Kidney, And Bone Disorders

Besides the brain, alcohol use also significantly affects the rest of your body. Liver failure, heart failure, and addiction are among the few that can entirely damage your body’s internal functions.

Still, they will also lead to a lack of familial and friendly relationships, loneliness, depression, mental health disorders, alcohol poisoning, and death.


[1] Alcohol Facts and Statistics

[2] Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the United States

[3] Wernick-Korsakoff Syndrome

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Susana is a recovery, mental health, and addiction education enthusiast with 8 years of experience in addiction recovery herself. Susana holds a Bachelor of Arts from the GCU College of Theology. She is anti-addiction stigma and believes accurate and factual information is essential to beginning the recovery process.
lionel estrada lisac clinical director



Lionel, a Licensed Independent Substance Abuse Counselor (LISAC) with over 4 years at Cornerstone. Passionate about helping those with addiction, he has trained as an EMDR therapist  adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues of addiction, providing an empathetic approach to addiction.

Articles written prior to August 2023 were also clinically reviewed by Karen Williams, LPC 

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