How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

Like most drugs, alcohol disrupts neurotransmission, which is the technical way of saying alcohol changes the way brain nerves communicate with one another.

Alcohol affects many parts of your brain, from the medulla to the cerebellum. Simply put, alcohol performs like an on-and-off switch as it blocks or enhances your brain’s lines of communication. Yet unlike many other drugs, alcohol interacts with multiple systems in the brain at the same time–and this is the secret of its powers.

What part of the brain does alcohol affect?

Alcohol interacts with three powerful neurotransmitters–chemical messengers that are responsible for communication.

  • The Nucleus accumbens: the nucleus accumbens is an important structure in the middle of the brain that is part of the reward pathway. The nucleus accumbens maintains motivation, pleasure, satiety, and memories. Alcohol enhances the release of dopamine, which then produces feelings of euphoria and well-being. This is also why alcohol can be so addicting.
  • Glutamate receptors: Glutamate is a chemical that excites neurons. Alcohol binds to glutamate receptors and blocks them, or keeps them from being activated.
  • GABA receptors: GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is the chemical that slows the brain down. Alcohol also binds to GABA receptors and activates these receptors.

Between alcohol’s interaction with GABA and Glutamate, the net effect is a depression of brain activity and all the nerves in your spinal cord (also known as the Central Nervous System). This effect doesn’t just result in general drowsiness, but it also slows your breathing, thinking, and even suppresses the gag reflex.

(You may think that suppressing the gag reflex isn’t a big deal, but it is. A decreased gag reflex prevents your ability to swallow and increases the chance of choking, airway obstruction, aspiration, and other respiratory complications.)

Other brain structures affected by alcohol include:

  • The Frontal Lobes: The frontal lobes of our brain are responsible for cognition, thought, memory, and judgment. By inhibiting its effects, alcohol impairs nearly every one of these functions.
  • The hippocampus: The hippocampus forms and stores memory. Alcohol’s impact on the hippocampus leads to memory loss.
  • The cerebellum: The cerebellum is the center of movement and balance. This is why people experience loss of balance and uncoordinated movements.
  • Hypothalamus and pituitary: The hypothalamus and pituitary coordinate automatic brain functions and hormone release. Even though sexual desire increases, sexual performance decreases.
  • Medulla: The medulla oblongata acts like you body’s powerpanel. This little segment of your brainstem controls basic vital life functions such as breathing, body temperature, consciousness, heart rate. Alcohol’s depressant effects on the medulla is often responsible for the fatal signs of overdose: extremely slowed breathing (also called respiratory depression by the medical-savvy people) and a slowed heartbeat.

If alcohol was an army general plotting a way to take over your brain, it could not have picked a more strategic plan. GABA and glutamate affect the function of the entire central nervous system (including vital life functions and your ability to think), and dopamine causes you to like the substance that’s causing these dangerous effects. Even if you ignore alcohol’s effect on the other major organs in your body, it’s still a pretty thorough takeover.

What are the long-term effects on alcohol on the brain?

Alcohol can cause reversible and irreversible brain damage, particularly with heavy or persistent use. Of the approximately 20 million alcoholics in the United States, as many as half of them have various degrees of brain damage.

In studies, alcoholics have exhibited brain shrinkage and deficiencies in the white brain matter that carries information between cells. Brain scans of heavy drinkers indicate that alcohol negatively affects neurotransmission, brain cell metabolism, and blood flow within the frontal lobes and cerebellum. Chronic drinkers may develop permanent brain damage that results in severe medical conditions such as:

  • Impaired learning, memory, movement, coordination.
  • Psychological disturbances such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia
  • Dementia, which affects memory and mental abilities such as language, reasoning, and problem solving
  • Wet brain, a persistent amnesic disorder, which which results from vitamin B1 deficiency

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