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The Truth and Fiction of Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain

by Souti

Alcohol represents one of the most popular recreational drugs consumed in many countries throughout the world. While abuse certainly can result in many different negative health implications, there are common misconceptions about potential for damage to the brain. This is not to say that alcohol does not pose any threat to brain health. However, popular belief may overstate the dangers in some ways.

Truth: Regular Alcohol Consumption Reduces Brain Volume

According to a 2007 study by the American Academy of Neurology, there is a negative correlation between brain volume and consumption of alcohol. Based on the 1,839 people evaluated, researchers determined that heavy drinkers (those who consumed more than 14 drinks each week) had a 1.6 percent reduction in ratio of brain volume compared to skull size, when measured against those who did not drink.



Fiction: Brain Volume Impacts Cognitive Abilities

While the AAN’s study did evidence a noticeable reduction in brain mass for drinkers, the actual rate of shrinkage was thought to be fairly small in context. Additionally, the studies did not indicate that a reduction in the brain’s volume was linked to impairment of memory and mental functions. While both of these problems can stem from alcohol abuse for other reasons, they are not thought to be a direct result of decreased brain mass.

Truth: Alcohol Consumption Damages the Brain

This statement is technically true, although it is important to consider the actual type and amount of damage inflicted. Most of the negative impact for heavy drinkers occurs in the connections between brain cells, called dendrites, which help neurons to communicate. Additionally, while it is true that prolonged overconsumption of alcohol can lead to diminished brain health, the effects are not necessarily permanent.

Fiction: Drinking Kills Brain Cells

One of the most common misconceptions about alcohol use is that it always kills brain cells. In fact, this theory was debunked in 1993 thanks to a study performed by Dr. Grethe Badsberg Jensen and Dr. Bente Pakkenberg of the Neurological Research Laboratory at Aarhus University.

Their findings showed that prolonged heavy drinking could result in the presence of fewer healthy white brain cells, and sometimes fewer gray cells in the parietal lobe (responsible for spatial processing and navigation). However, these risks were not considered to be a concern for moderate drinkers.

Truth: The Human Brain Can Heal

 In most cases, alcoholics and heavier drinkers who reduce their alcohol intake significantly (or cease altogether) improve their chances of reversing some of the negative effects caused by drinking. Within five to seven years, most studies indicate that brain mass and cognitive functions will return to normal, especially if the individual has chosen a lifestyle of total sobriety.

Overall, with alcohol use being prevalent in so many parts of the world, the potential for abuse will always exist. It is necessary to ensure that consumers are well informed regarding the health risks associated with long-term drinking. Although the potential impact on the brain may sometimes be overemphasized, alcohol can be damaging to the body in numerous ways, particularly when abused. Please seek out the advice of a medical professional if you or someone you know needs help or information regarding substance abuse.

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