All of us can tell when a person is drunk. The signs are overt and well-known. A drunk person has poor balance, finding it difficult to walk straight. Their speech is slurred and sometimes nonsensical. Their reaction times are slowed, and they’re more likely to fall, slip, or knock something over. And yet, most people don’t know what it is about alcohol that makes these effects occur. Alcohol affects many different parts of the brain, not only causing the famous effects of drunkenness, but planting the seeds of alcoholism. Getting alcohol abuse help can then start the process of healing that damage to the brain.
To understand how alcohol affects the brain, you have to understand neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that change your thoughts, emotions, and feelings. When certain things happen, your brain produces a neurotransmitter that then binds to a brain cell that accepts it. When the neurotransmitter binds with the receptor cell, it changes your brain activity. There are two main kinds of neurotransmitters: excitatory, which increase electrical activity in the brain, and inhibitory, which slows it down.
Alcohol causes the brain to release the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. GABA is the cause of drunk people’s poor motor function, slowed movement, slurred speech, and clumsiness. GABA also inhibits the part of the brain that limits dopamine production, indirectly causing the excessive dopamine production common with all addictive drugs. The amount of GABA in the brain also inhibits the production of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, which only increases alcohol’s ability to make a person sluggish, slow, and unable to fully control their bodies.
The inhibitory nature of alcohol affects the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of “grey matter” in our brains responsible for higher thinking. This is why people have poor judgment and low inhibitions when drinking alcohol. The cerebral cortex, which would normally help a person think about and judge their situation to find the best way to act, instead is unable to think clearly and doesn’t filter a drinker’s actions.
Chronic alcohol abuse doesn’t just temporarily inhibit brain function—it causes permanent damage. Brain cells themselves become physically damaged, forever reducing their ability to carry information and electrical signals. That is to say, the brain becomes worse at its job. Alcohol also changes the way the body processes vitamin B, causing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, caused by vitamin B deficiency. People with the syndrome have long-term coordination issues, chronic confusion, and vision problems. In severe cases, it can even cause significant memory loss or the inability to form new memories.