Effects of alcohol on the brain

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Consumable alcohol is referred to as ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Ethanol is the only alcohol found in beverages and is produced by the fermentation of fruits and grains by yeasts and some bacteria. Alcohol as a drug is classified as a depressant and as a stimulant [1]. Heavy doses lead to the depressant effects such as slurred speech, unsteady movement, disturbed perception, inability to react quickly and distortion of one’s judgment. Not only are we constantly ingesting alcohol along with the food we eat, our own bodies also produce alcohol as a part of the digestive process [2].

In the human body, alcohol taken in is first converted to a chemical compound called acetaldehyde. This is broken down in the liver to carbon dioxide (CO₂) and water (H₂O) through a series of complex reactions to generate energy in the form of ATP [3]. The main culprit of brain malfunctioning in alcohol metabolism is acetaldehyde [4]. It is able to leak from the liver into the blood stream, and then into the brain where it causes headaches, nausea or hangovers and the common effects associated with alcohol use.

In the Ghanaian society, alcohol consumption is very high, especially among the youth [5]. The most common method of taking in alcohol is by drinking. Alcohol can also be inhaled (referred to as “alcohol smoking”), absorbed through the skin, injected, or given as an enema [3].

The type of effects experienced by alcohol users depends on several factors. These include the quantity taken in, habitual drinking or use of alcohol, age, level of education, gender, genetics, prenatal exposure to alcohol and general health status of the user [6].

Alcohol affects the brain by altering levels of brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. It increases the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, which causes the sluggish movements and slurred speech experienced by alcohol users. The excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate is also suppressed by alcohol, resulting in physiological slowdown. Additionally, alcohol increases the amount of the brain chemical dopamine, which creates the feeling of pleasure experienced by alcohol users. The damaging effects of alcohol on the brain leads to blurred vision and impaired memory [6]. Alcohol overdose can result in blackout or memory gaps and errors over a short period of time. Long term effects of alcohol on the brain include stroke, dementia, epilepsy, polyneuropathy and cancer [7]. Studies comparing the sensitivity of men and women to alcohol-induced brain damage report that women are more vulnerable to alcohol’s effect than men [8].

Disulfiram (commonly called Antabuse) is a drug that is administered to chronic alcohol users to discourage them from taking in alcohol [9]. The drug works by blocking the enzyme that breaks down alcohol. This makes the user sick immediately after taking in alcohol [10].

Since excess consumption of alcohol affects the brain cells and its functions, there should be less intake of alcohol. Although disulfiram can be used to support treatment of chronic alcoholism, it can cause some harmful side effects [10]. The sure way of preventing the adverse effects of alcohol is to drink responsibly and live a healthy life.


  1. What Is Alcohol? Is Alcohol a Drug? Alcohol Content – Drug-Free World [Internet]. [Cited 2016 May 14]. Available from: http://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/alcohol.html
  2. Parsons, O.A. (1996) Alcohol abuse and alcoholism. In: Nixon, S. J., ed. Neuropsychology for clinical Practice, American Psychological Press, Washington DC,pp.175-201
  3. Rosenthal, D.M. and Glew, H.R. (2009). Medical Biochemistry: Human Metabolism in Health and Disease,1st Edition, John Wiley and Sons, Inc. Publication,London,pp.192.
  4. NIAAA Publications. Alcohol Metabolism: An Update [Internet]. [Cited 2016 May 14]. Available from: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AA72/AA72.htm
  5. News Ghana. Alcoholic drinks commercials killing the young [Internet]. [Cited 2016 May 14]. Available from: https://www.newsghana.com.gh/alcoholic-drinks-commercials-killing-the-young/
  6. NIAAA Publications. Alcohol’s damaging effects on the brain [Internet]. [Cited 2016 May 14]. Available from: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm
  7. Mihic,S.,J. and Harris,R.A.(1995). Pharmacological Effects of Ethanol on the Nervous System, 1st Edition, FL: CRC Press, Boca Raton, pp.51-71.
  8. Ammendola, A., Gemini D. and lanncone, S.(2000). Gender and peripheral neuropathy in chronic alcoholism: A clinical-electroneurographic study.Alcohol and Alcoholism 35:368-371.
  9. Drugs.com. Antabuse (disulfiram) Uses, Dosage, Side Effects – Drugs.com [Internet]. [Cited 2016 May 14]. Available from: http://www.drugs.com/antabuse.html
  10. Addictions and Recovery.  Anti-alcohol drugs (Antabuse) [Internet]. [Cited 2016 May 14]. Available from: http://www.addictionsandrecovery.org/antabuse.htm

By: Bright Oppong Afranie, (BSc. Biochemistry student, KNUST)

©2016 Scientect e-mag | Volume 1 (1): A7


  1. Nice piece!! the last sentence of paragraph 10 talks about drinking responsibly as a means of controlling adverse effects of alcohol. what is the RDI of alcohol? and what is the value if any. if not what does drinking responsibly mean here?

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