What Are the Effects of Alcohol on the Brain?

Amanda R. Bell
Amanda R. Bell
When driving, alcohol can effect how the brain sees things and reacts to things, impairing a person's ability to drive.
When driving, alcohol can effect how the brain sees things and reacts to things, impairing a person's ability to drive.

The effects of alcohol on the brain are vast and damaging when large amounts of alcoholic beverages are consumed. Located at the base of the brain, alcohol can have a severe effect on the cerebellum, which controls a large portion of a person’s gross motor function. It can also alter the function of the hippocampus, which resides in the center of the brain and stores memories. The normal functions of the frontal lobe, responsible for planning and judgment among other functions, can also be disturbed. While these effects of alcohol on the brain can be temporary when it is consumed in moderation, this substance can permanently alter and damage the size and function of these parts if the consumption of alcohol is abused in the long run.

Alcohol decreases the ability of neurons in the brain to properly control body systems.
Alcohol decreases the ability of neurons in the brain to properly control body systems.

Alcohol travels to the brain through the blood stream relatively quickly. Once inside, the effects of alcohol on the brain become apparent. When enough is consumed, the substance begins to slow down the function of the cerebellum, which is responsible for translating thoughts, which are developed in the cerebrum into movements. This can result in difficulty walking and handling objects, as well as impairing the ability to operate a vehicle.

Alcohol can affect a person's awareness and inhibitions in social settings.
Alcohol can affect a person's awareness and inhibitions in social settings.

The hippocampus is another area of the brain largely affected by alcohol. This portion of the brain stores short- and long-term memories, as well as a person’s ability to move around his or her environment, known as spatial navigation. When alcohol enters this portion of the brain, a person may lose a sense of time, temporarily forget information known to him or her before drinking, or have no knowledge of drinking once the alcohol leaves his or her system. The effects on spatial navigation tend to make a person who is drinking clumsy, and may cause him or her to run into objects, trip, and swerve while walking. When driving, the effects of alcohol on the brain can make objects appear farther or closer than they actually are due to the damage to the hippocampus.

Alcohol can alter the function of the hippocampus, which is in the center part of the brain and stores memories.
Alcohol can alter the function of the hippocampus, which is in the center part of the brain and stores memories.

The frontal lobe is a large portion of the brain comprised of several different parts, and is primarily responsible for recognizing the consequences of one’s actions. As alcohol begins to disrupt the frontal lobe, a person is often more prone toward what many would consider bad judgment. Once the frontal lobe is compromised, many people temporarily or permanently, depending on alcohol use, lose the ability to decipher between right and wrong, as well as the ability to understand how what they are doing will affect them or others either at the time or in the future.

Excessive drinking leads to blackouts, a form of memory loss.
Excessive drinking leads to blackouts, a form of memory loss.

While the effects of alcohol on the brain in the cerebellum, hippocampus, and temporal lobe can occur with even moderate consumption, chronic abuse of alcohol can actually shrink these portions of the brain. It can also change the manner in which these parts, and others, function. This often results in permanent issues with movement and memory, including uncontrollable tremors and a complete lack of short-term memory.

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