Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

February 23, 2019   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsScience Culture

Alcohol’s effects on the brain

My best friend recently celebrated their 21st birthday doing what you might expect on such an occasion. We’re not really partiers in the traditional sense, but there’s nothing wrong with having a few drinks with friends on a Saturday night — right? Well, if you’re not careful, heavy and repetitive drinking can lead to some serious effects.

Let’s take a few steps back. You’ve probably either witnessed or experienced the short-term effects of alcohol: slurred speech, sluggish behavior and, perhaps, a mood improvement or confidence boost. This is due to what the alcohol is doing to different neurotransmitters in the brain. A neurotransmitter is a chemical, which you can think of as a messenger that helps your brain communicate with the rest of your body. There are many different kinds of neurotransmitters, but they all fall under two categories: excitatory and inhibitory. Two super important players here are the neurotransmitters called glutamate (excitatory) and GABA (inhibitory).

As an excitatory neurotransmitter, the job of glutamate is to increase — or excite — brain activity, especially activity regarding memory and learning. Think of this excitatory neurotransmitter as an inflated dodgeball; when you bounce it on the floor, it wants to keep bouncing.

On the other hand, GABA is inhibitory, and helps prevent too much brain activity, primarily controlling physical movement, subduing anxiety and aiding in sleep. In reference to our previously mentioned dodgeball, this inhibitory neurotransmitter isn’t fully inflated, so when you go to bounce it, it just falls to the floor.

If you drink some alcohol, and you’re feeling a confidence boost and slurred speech, the alcohol is mimicking the effects of GABA. Alcohol acts like the deflated dodgeballs, and if you’re making some subpar decisions or facing memory loss, thank alcohol for suppressing glutamate release and reducing the amount of those bouncy dodgeballs.

It’s true that alcohol’s effects differ from person to person. This is due, in part, to differences in water content, body size and genetics. The more water you have in your system, the more it can dilute the alcohol. Furthermore, people with larger bodies are more likely to be able to handle more alcohol because they can physically have more water in their system to dilute alcohol.

No matter what your tolerance may be, long-term alcohol abuse can impact anyone. Constantly disturbing neurotransmitter levels essentially changes many important neuronal connections and eventually shrinks the brain, damaging areas responsible for memory and reasoning. However, alcohol can also impact other parts of the body, including your heart, liver and digestive tract. The liver is especially susceptible since it works tirelessly to break down alcohol, and this can actually damage liver cells.

The moral of the story is that having a couple drinks occasionally isn’t a bad thing, however, anyone that has consumed any amount of alcohol is still responsible for their actions, no matter what. If you, or someone you know, is drinking heavily on a daily basis, consider seeking help. Resources include Ithaca College’s free and confidential BASICS program, CAPS, and AA meetings. And above all else folks, please drink responsibly.