Alcohol Does Damage our Brains

There is no doubt that drink and damage go hand in hand.

In an interview for Radio Tees, Simon Stephen, director of casework for Addictions UK, asked, “Would we inhale all the toxic fumes from a car exhaust and not expect to be damaged?” He then went on to say that we run similar risks from heavy drinking. The interviewer’s response was to say, “buts it’s not as dangerous as that”. Well it might have been a bit of an exaggeration but there is no doubt that alcohol and brain damage go hand in hand.

Trouble walking, impaired memory, distorted vision, incoherent speech, slowed reaction times; whatever others say, alcohol affects the brain. Some of this damage is detectable after only one or two drinks and quickly resolves when drinking stops. On the other hand, a person who drinks heavily over a long period of time may have brain damage that lasts well after he or she is dry.

Exactly how alcohol affects the brain and the possibility of reversing the impact on the brain of heavy drinking remain hot topics in alcohol research today.

It is known that heavy drinking does have extensive and far-reaching effects: re-routing neural pathways, with consequences ranging from lapses in memory to permanent and debilitating conditions that require lifetime care. And even moderate drinking leads to short-term impairment, as shown by extensive research on the impact of drinking on driving.

A number of factors influence how and to what extent alcohol affects the brain, including;

  • how much and how often a person drinks;
  • the age at which he or she first began drinking, and for how long;
  • the person’s age, level of education, gender, genetic background, and family history of alcoholism;
  • whether he or she is at risk as a result of pre-natal alcohol exposure; and
  • his or her general health status.

Consider two common disorders associated with alcohol-related brain damage and the people at greatest risk for impairment.

Blackouts and Memory Lapses

Alcohol can produce detectable impairments in memory after only a few drinks and, as the amount of alcohol increases, so does the degree of impairment. Large quantities of alcohol, especially when consumed quickly and on an empty stomach, can produce a blackout, or time intervals for which the people cannot recall key details or even the entirety of events. Prisons are full of convicted people who have no real recollection of what led them to be incarcerated.

Blackouts are much more common among social drinkers than previously assumed and should be viewed as a potential consequence of acute intoxication, regardless of age or whether the drinker is clinically dependent on alcohol.

Research by White and colleagues surveyed 772 college undergraduates about their experiences with blackouts and asked, “Have you ever awoken after a night of drinking not able to remember things that you did or places that you went?”.

Of the students who had ever consumed alcohol, 51 percent reported blacking out at some point in their lives, and 40 percent reported experiencing a blackout in the year before the survey. Of those who reported drinking in the 2 weeks before the survey, 9.4% said they blacked out during that time.

The students reported learning later that they had participated in a wide range of potentially dangerous events they could not remember, including vandalism, unprotected sex, and driving while intoxicated.

Confusion and paralysis

If that does not worry you, than consider Wernicke’s encephalopathy. A study in mental hospitals in Scotland showed 9% of patients suffered from this disease, caused by a lack of thiamine in heavy drinkers.

The symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include mental confusion, paralysis of the nerves that move the eyes (i.e., oculomotor disturbances), and difficulty with muscle coordination. For example, patients with Wernicke’s encephalopathy may be too confused to find their way out of a room or may not even be able to walk.

Many Wernicke’s encephalopathy patients, however, do not exhibit all three of these signs and symptoms, and clinicians working with alcoholics must be aware that this disorder may be present even if the patient shows only one or two of them.

In fact, studies performed after death indicate that many cases of thiamine deficiency-related encephalopathy may not be diagnosed in life because not all the “classic” signs and symptoms were present or recognised.

All this does raise the question of why we ignore the safe drinking limits suggested by government when it’s clear that such behaviour runs such alarming risks. Well maybe it’s because, although we know about the safe limits, we largely ignore what happens in our head simply because the function of the brain remains a mystery to most of us and it’s a case of “out of sight out of mind”.

We can help

If you are concerned that your drinking may be harming your health, please contact Addictions UK now online or telephone 0300 330 30 40.

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