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Long Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

cartoon brain being damaged by alcohol

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), nearly 15 million people in the United States have alcohol use disorders. Excessive alcohol use claims more than 95,000 lives in the nation each year, or 261 deaths per day.

But deaths due to alcohol overdose, alcohol poisoning, suicides, motor vehicle crashes, and accidents like drownings are not the only negative consequence of excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol abuse can lead to several short-term and long-term physical and mental health conditions.

Alcohol affects many organs in the human body, including brain health. Researchers have studied alcohol-related brain damage and found that in the short-term, alcohol can cause slowing of motor functions, poor coordination, and impairment of memory and judgment. Long-term alcohol use can cause liver disease, heart disease, various types of cancers, and permanent brain damage. Brain damage can result in mental disorders like learning deficits, memory problems, and dementia. 

However, with proper addiction treatment consisting of outpatient or inpatient rehab for substance abuse, it is possible to improve brain function and heal.

Please continue reading to learn more about what happens to the brain when an individual consumes alcohol in large amounts or for a long time. 

Does alcohol consumption damage the brain?

Alcohol has an adverse effect on several critical regions of the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord, and nerves). Some of the negative consequences of drinking too much alcohol can occur after only a few drinks, while others may not develop until much later. Alcohol research has shown that several factors influence how and to what extent there are effects of alcohol on the brain:

  • How much and how often a person drinks (chronic alcohol abuse, heavy drinking, and binge drinking are particularly harmful).
  • The age at which a person first starts drinking (the developing brain during the teenage years is especially vulnerable to the effects of alcohol).
  • Gender (women are more likely to suffer many of the physical and mental health effects of alcohol than men).
  • Prenatal alcohol exposure (alcohol exposure during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol syndrome, which is associated with a range of developmental, cognitive, and behavioral problems that can last throughout life).
  • General health status.

Which parts of the brain does alcohol affect?

Alcohol can have an adverse effect on many vital parts of the human brain that control essential functions like emotions, memory, motor control, senses, body temperature, and breathing. 

Cerebral Cortex 

This is the think tank of the brain. It processes information and helps us make decisions and judgments. Alcohol use slows the input of information and functioning in this area, leading to clouded thinking, slurred speech, and lowered inhibitions. Long-term heavy drinking can lead to permanent damage to the cerebral cortex.


This is the part of the brain that controls movement, balance, and coordination. Drinking alcohol affects the cerebellum, causing staggering, unsteadiness, falls, and shakiness. 

Hypothalamus and Pituitary 

These brain regions link the nervous system and hormonal processes in the body to maintain an internal balance. Alcohol use disrupts this balance, thus impacting things like sexual desire and performance


This region of the brain controls vital functions like breathing, body temperature, and consciousness. By depressing signals in the medulla, alcohol can cause potentially life-threatening effects like slowed breathing, sleepiness, lowering of body temperature, and even coma. 


This brain region controls memory. The effect of alcohol on the hippocampus causes memory loss, blackouts, and learning deficits. Chronic alcohol consumption can have a permanent effect on memory and may contribute to alcohol-related dementia.

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

Chronic alcohol use can cause permanent damage to many organs in the body, including the brain. Some of the health risks and long-term impacts of alcohol on the brain include:

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms 

When people with alcohol dependence try to quit drinking, they can experience severe withdrawal symptoms such as seizures and hallucinations, which can damage brain cells. Those who consume alcohol in large amounts or for very long can experience a severe form of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens or DTs.


These are brain chemicals that are responsible for communication between different parts of the brain. Alcohol slows these signals and can cause mental confusion and low energy.

Brain structure

Heavy alcohol consumption can cause brain shrinkage and a reduction in brain volumes in the gray and white matter.

Cognitive impairment

Alcohol research has shown that drinking excessively can affect cognitive functions like speech, memory, concentration, and learning. The highest risk of damage is to areas of the brain associated with impulse control and problem-solving. This leads to an increased risk of developing alcohol-related dementia. It also reduces the chances of an individual being able to cut back or quit drinking.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome 

Up to 8 out of 10 people who drink alcohol excessively have a thiamine deficiency. As a result, many of these individuals develop a serious brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, also called wet brain. Symptoms of this disorder can include jerky eye movements due to nerve paralysis, mental confusion, poor balance and coordination, memory problems, mood changes, and poor judgment.

Does alcohol kill brain cells?

Clinical and experimental research has shown that excessive alcohol use damages the white matter in the brain and causes brain shrinkage. This is the brain tissue that processes thoughts, controls movement, and transmits messages between various parts of the central nervous system. Alcohol can speed up brain damage caused by other conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease

The good news is that alcohol research shows this brain damage can be reversed, especially if a person quits drinking before age 50.

The Takeaway

The brain plays a critical role in regulating many essential body functions like decision making, behavior, movements, emotions, and sleep patterns. Therefore, it is important for anyone struggling with excessive alcohol use or alcohol use disorder to seek professional alcohol addiction treatment from a mental health professional. This can help to slow or reverse the effects of alcohol on the brain. 

To prevent alcohol addiction from developing, experts advise moderate alcohol consumption (limiting intake to 2 drinks or less per day for men and 1 drink or less per day for women). Some individuals should not drink alcohol at all, such as pregnant women, those who are under the legal age for drinking, and people with certain medical conditions or who are taking certain medications. 



  1. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/features/excessive-alcohol-deaths.html
  2. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm
  3. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
  4. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/research/niaaa-research-highlights/niaaa-spectrum-brain-scans-reveal-heavy-drinking-damages-white-matter