The drug alcohol, specifically ethanol, is a central nervous system depressant
that has a range of side effects on the body and brain. The amount consumed and factors surrounding the period of consumption play a large roll in determining the extent of intoxication and damage done to the body. Specifically, alcohol contracts brain tissue and depresses the central nervous system. Alcohol also destroys brain cells. Unlike other cells within the human body, brain cells do not regenerate. Drinking excessively over an extended period of time can lead to problems with cognition and memory.
When alcohol reaches the brain, it interferes with communication between nerve cells by interacting with cell receptors. The alcohol suppresses excitable nerve pathway activity. Among other actions, alcohol enhances the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, thus causing a person to become sluggish. Also, alcohol weakens the excitable neurotransmitter glutamine, which adds to sluggish tendencies.
Essentially, after consuming alcohol a person's brain function shifts dramatically. The cerebral cortex processes senses and thoughts. It initiates the majority of voluntary muscle movements. After consuming alcohol, the cerebral cortex is affected in the following ways:
- Negative affect on thought processes which can lead to poor judgment
- Lowers inhibitions. This can lead the person to become more talkative, have a false sense of confidence, or engage in risky or devious behaviors
- Blunts senses
- Increases the threshold for pain
- With increasing blood alcohol levels (BAC), all of the above become increasingly pronounced
Alcohol can also have a negative impact on the brain's limbic system. The limbic system consists of the hippocampus and the septal regions. The primary function of the limbic system is to control states of emotion and memory. After a person consumes a large amount of alcohol it is very common for the individual to suffer memory loss, or to experience exaggerated states of emotion.
Another part of the brain that is affected by alcohol consumption is the cerebellum, which coordinates muscle movement. While the cerebral cortex initiates muscle movements, the cerebellum creates nerve impulses that control an individual's balance and a number of other fine movements. It communicates with the cerebellum to define movements overall. When a large amount of alcohol is consumed, muscle movements become less coordinated, and motor skills are reduced. In some cases it can cause an individual to lose their balance or fall over.
Additional parts of the brain affected by alcohol are the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. Increased alcohol consumption can cause increased sexual desires. However, alcohol depresses the nerve centers in the hypothalamus that determine sexual arousal and performance - so despite this increased sexual desire, the drinker's actual sexual performance may decline. It infiltrates the pituitary gland by inhibiting secretion of anti-diuretic hormone (ADH), which effects urine excretion. ADH works with the kidneys to reabsorb toxins in the body. When inhibited, ADH levels drop and reduce the kidney's ability to reabsorb the water necessary to produce a healthy amount of urine. This malady can cause problems on a sexual level.
The next part of the brain negatively affected by alcohol is the medulla, also known as the brain stem. The medulla influences body functions that occur automatically, such as heart rate, body temperature, and breathing. Alcohol affects the medulla by causing the individual to feel sleepy. Thus, overdosing on alcohol can not only cause an individual to become unconscious it can sometimes be fatal.
Most side affects from alcohol occur after drinking just one time. Unfortunately, alcohol consumption practiced in excess over an extended period of time can create much more serious problems for the brain than minor infractions. For example, if an individual develops an addiction to alcohol, their chances of developing a thiamine deficiency are doubled. In more severe or advanced cases of alcohol dependency, a brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, also known as "wet brain", may develop. WKS is a disease that consists of two different syndromes. The first is a short-lived and severe condition called Wernicke's encephalopathy and the second is a long-lasting critical condition known as Korsakoff's psychosis. Symptoms of Wernicke's encephalopathy include mental confusion, paralysis of nerves behind the eyeballs, and decreased motor function.
In addition to Wernicke's encephalopathy it is believed that approximately 80 to 90 percent of alcoholics will also develop Korsakoff's psychosis, a chronic and debilitating syndrome characterized by persistent learning and memory problems. Patients suffering from Korsakoff's psychosis are forgetful, quickly frustrated and have difficulty with walking and coordination. Despite having difficulty remembering information from the alcoholic's past, it is their struggle retaining new information that is most striking. For example, an individual may be able to discuss an event in their lives with great detail, but an hour later forgets ever having the conversation.
Overall alcohol is a toxin that destructs the human body in high doses and over time. It has a risk of addiction or dependency. It impairs judgment and shifts the body's originating physicality; caution should be exercised when and if consumption of alcoholic beverages is involved.
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