Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

MEDICALLY REVIEWED BY KAYLA LOIBL | LAST EDITED : JANUARY 26, 
2021 
| 4 SOURCES


Does alcohol kill brain cells

The age-old question, “Does alcohol kill brain cells?” has always been up for debate. While there is a relation between alcoholism and brain damage, brain cells are not actually killed.

Nerve endings are paralyzed, so-to-speak, briefly as the alcohol impairs the ability to make decisions and your reaction times. The dendrites, or ends of neurons, are actually what are damaged. Those that drink heavily, or develop alcoholism, are subject to a permanent impairment.

When those that do drink do not cut back or stop completely, the neurons in the brain are unable to regenerate. While they still function, it is often at a slower pace.

This results in a permanent reduction of gray and white matter. The areas of the brain that control memory and emotions are often most greatly affected.

Individuals who abuse alcohol can also suffer from shrinkage of the cerebral cortex, which is what controls language and communication skills, among other things.

White matter, or nerve cells that allow brain cells to communicate with each other also end up damaged by heavy drinking. Overall brain capabilities are reduced as these "windows" between neurons die off. In time, many drinkers may actually lose some cognitive function permanently.

Those suffering from alcoholism have also been found to have lower levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for mood regulation and happiness. Because of this issue, self-medication with drugs becomes a common and inherent coping mechanism.

alcohol and brain cellsPhoto by Natasha Connell

Dendrite Damage

As mentioned above, dendrites are the ends of neurons. Consuming alcohol does cause temporary damage, so does alcohol kill brain cells? Just to reiterate, no, brain cells are not actually killed.

Consider the neurons and dendrites in the brain being put to sleep temporarily. The formation of a dendrite is similar to that of what blood vessels in the eye look like.

They branch off from a central neuron, almost forming the structure of what a lightning strike looks like. Since the ends are fragile, damaging them is not difficult to do.

Those that drink heavily and develop alcoholism, or alcohol dependence disorder, face permanent neuronal damage. The dendrites become deformed as the brain tries to compensate for its loss of function.

Dendrite functioning is affected because glutamine receptors are compromised by heavy drinking. Glutamine acts as a neurotransmitter in the body, sending signals between neurons.

This suppression undermines our ability to think clearly and normally. Researchers have discovered a link between a genetic predisposition to alcoholism and nerve cells not being able to properly absorb glutamines. This issue has been found in those who experience events such as severe stress or trauma throughout their lives - especially during childhood - but also have a history of substance abuse problems themselves.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a deadening of the neurons in the brain. This is commonly seen among alcoholics and those that binge drink frequently. Alcoholism and brain damage are what results in Werincke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

Alcohol causes a decrease in B1 in the body. Alcohol consumption forces the body to inappropriately digest food and take in the necessary vitamins and nutrients from the food ingested. This is how the lack of B1, or thiamine, occurs.

There are two parts to Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Wernicke is the beginning state where damage to the lower parts of the brain occurs. The thalamus and hypothalamus are the areas affected. As the syndrome progresses, Korsakoff symptoms are more evident. These symptoms show the psychosis symptoms and memory issues.

The syndrome was combined in reference to alcoholism due to the effects it directly has on the brain. It is important to remember that some of these symptoms are irreversible if changes are not made in one’s lifestyle.

Some of the primary symptoms of this syndrome include general confusion, loss of muscle coordination, vision confusion and the inability to make new memories. This stems from damage to necessary neurons in one part of the brain. Hallucinations are another symptom and result of the syndrome.

This means that one suffering from Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome would see and hear things that are not really there. It is also likely that a sufferer of this would make up stories, also known as confabulation.

As you can see from the above information, the answer to the question “Does alcohol kill brain cells?” is technically no. Alcoholism and brain damage are related though. Damage does occur to the nerves in the brain.

Some damage can be permanent but most is reversible. Nerves in the body do regrow in time. The amount of time that it takes a nerve in the body to regrow or regenerate is not specific. They grow and fix themselves at their own pace. In some cases, the dendrites are unable to recover completely at the ends.

It is important not to take inebriation to levels of waking up still drunk or hung over on a frequent basis to protect the neurons and nerve endings in the brain.

Although the brain sees the most damage, the central nervous system can be affected to the point that a general slow reaction in the body and slow thinking processes results. The explanations here help to answer the question “does alcohol kill brain cells?”

You can follow this link go learn more about how alcoholism affects the body.

Quit Alcoholism Today!

If you or your loved one is suffering from alcoholism, seek the help that is needed to quit this addiction. There are treatment providers across the country that can help by providing therapy and advice on how to quit drinking. Reach out to a treatment provider today.

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 

I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LPC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More


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