Everyone who has seen a drunken individual knows that alcohol makes people do strange things. Slurred speech, clumsiness, slow reflexes, loss
of inhibitions, and lack of mental focus are
some of the symptoms. This gives rise to the question about the manner in which alcohol affects the brain, and whether brain cells actually die
after alcohol consumption.
Alcohol does not destroy brain cells completely. However, it does cause damage to the dendrites, the branched out antennas of the neurons that receive inputs. Alcohol dilates the channels in the brain structures that carry calcium. This promotes excessive flow of calcium in the brain. The increased calcium in these channels causes a surge in activity. In some inexplicable way, this charging up causes damage to the receiving ends of neurons, disrupting normal brain functions.
Another theory about the manner in which alcohol affects brain cells is that alcohol mixes with the brain’s fatty acids. This reaction between an acid and alcohol forms fatty acid ethyl esters. When this molecule enters a nerve cell, it quickens the release of potassium ions, which restricts the release of neurotransmitters. This interpolation disrupts the incoming electrical and chemical signals. A change in the flow of signals causes a gap in the communication between cells, and brings forth inappropriate behavior.
Apart from slurred speech and an unstable gait, alcohol can affect the cognitive abilities of a person. A couple of drinks can bring about a noticeable impairment of memory. Memory loss or an inability to recall incidences, people, words or objects rises with an increase in consumption of alcohol. Large quantities, more so on an empty stomach, can lead to an inability of recalling key details or the entire event of drinking. Such blackouts are common in social drinkers as well. In fact, it is now considered to be a potential consequence of alcohol, regardless of the age, sex, or clinical dependence on alcohol. Alcoholism can even lead to alcohol dementia, a general diminution of brain health otherwise associated with natural mental deterioration due to advanced age.
Large amounts of alcohol over long periods can increase the risk of developing persistent changes. This can result in an irreversible damage to the brain cells. Alcohol is known to cause deficiency of thiamine (a vitamin B1), which is responsible for preventing beriberi and maintaining appetite and growth.
Many medical conditions are also associated with heavy drinking. The liver is mainly responsible for processing alcohol and breaking it down to harmless substances for excretion. Prolonged liver dysfunction can lead to hepatic encephalopathy, a potentially fatal brain disease that causes disturbances in sleep patterns, personality changes, or mood disorders such as depression or severe anxiety. Excessive consumption of alcohol may lead to a fatal liver disease, like cirrhosis. Other medical conditions include alcohol-induced damage to the heart muscles and peripheral neuropathy.
Although men usually drink more than women, alcohol harms women faster. Women are more likely to develop medical conditions associated with drinking faster than men. Moreover, drinking during pregnancy can restrict the development and cause brain defects in the fetus.
It is perhaps difficult to ask people to become totalitarians overnight, but temperance should be exercised and all efforts must be made to avoid binge drinking. Herbs and vitamins that promote mental focus can prove to be advantageous while on the path of recovery. This can help in maintaining cognition and thinking abilities. In addition to these herbs, it does well to follow the rules of drinking maturely – don’t gulp, restrict yourself to a small drink or two, and sit over each drink, giving adequate gap between sips.