How Alcohol Affects the Brain [Infographic]

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Alcohol affects the brain in two main ways:

  • It inhibits the brain’s neurotransmitters, which slows down thought processes as well as speech and movement.
  • It triggers the release of “happiness hormones” called endorphins. The endorphins act on the brain’s opiate receptors, producing a pleasurable, euphoric feeling. However, tolerance can build up over time and it may take more and more alcohol to produce this feeling—which can lead to alcohol addiction.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain


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Areas of the brain affected by alcohol:

    • Medulla: Lower body temperature, respiratory, and heart rate
    • Cerebellum: Impaired balance and movement
    • Cerebral cortex: Lowered inhibitions, dulled thought process
    • Hypothalamus: Heightened sexual arousal
  • Hippocampus: Loss of memory
  • Frontal lobe: Loss of judgement
  • Reticular activating system: Sleepiness, potential for passing out

Some cognitive issues caused by long-term alcohol use:

  • Neurotoxicity is when neurotransmitters are overworked and the brain’s neurons stop working
  • Shrinkage or atrophy of brain matter
  • Serious defects in language or memory
  • Alcohol-related dementia
  • Brain disorders such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome in children whose mothers drank while pregnant

Note: In some cases, brain damage caused by heavy alcohol use can be improved with roughly a year of abstinence from drinking.  (Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism)


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