Alcohol disrupts the neurochemistry of the brain, primarily by causing an increase in “inhibitory” signals between brain cells. It causes physical manifestations of inebriation such as loss of balance, poor muscle coordination, and memory loss.
What is the first picture that comes to your mind when you hear the word “party”?
If you have seen a drunk person, then you know that alcohol can undoubtedly change a person’s behavior in various ways, but how does it happen? And what happens to our brains to achieve these effects?
To understand how alcohol works, we must first study how brain cells interact.
Chemistry in the Human Brain
The human brain is a huge mass of nerve cells that communicate with each other through electrical signals. In addition, there are chemical messengers called “neurotransmitters” in the brain. Each neuron stores these chemicals in small vesicles near its tail. It releases these chemical sacs when it sends a signal to the next cell. These chemicals then bind to sites on the next neuron, causing it to either send a signal or not.
These neurotransmitters have a specific effect when they bind to proteins called “receptors” in nerve cells, much like a key fits a lock.
A neurotransmitter can either “excite” a nerve cell, causing it to send a signal, or it “suppresses” or interferes with the transmission of a signal by the nerve cell.
Glutamate is a good example of an “excitatory” substance, and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an “inhibitory” neurochemical.
Certain parts of the brain are specific in the choice of neurotransmitters. For example, cells in an area called the substantia nigra use dopamine to transmit signals. Therefore, they are called “dopaminergic” neurons. Other parts of the brain have a mixture of cells that use different types of neurotransmitters.
How alcohol works on the brain
When we drink alcohol, after a while it enters the bloodstream, and then, as the blood circulates through the body, it reaches the brain. In the brain, it binds to various neurotransmitter receptors, resulting in different effects. Basically, it binds to receptors for GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and reduces the reactivity of nerve cells. This overall decrease in brain activity is called “central nervous system (CNS) depression”.
In addition, it also induces a similar inhibitory effect in the spinal cord and the lower part of the brain called the brain stem. It does this by acting on receptors for a neurotransmitter called glycine. Together, this leads to an overall relaxed state. Muscular movements of a person slow down, pupils relax, breathing slows down, confusion and dizziness can be observed. The most noticeable effect is the weakening of social inhibition, which allows us to behave in ways we would not normally behave.
In addition to its inhibitory effect, alcohol also reduces the action of excitatory neurons, creating a sedative effect.
Alcohol acts on the cerebellum, the part of the brain that helps coordinate movement, resulting in decreased ability to coordinate muscle movements when walking, talking, etc.
Short term and long term effects
Alcohol consumption, as we noted earlier, disrupts the work of several neurotransmitters in the brain and affects their interaction with brain cells. Alcohol is reported to have several damaging effects on the brain in both the short and long term.
Research has shown that alcohol consumption, even in the short term, can affect memory by interfering with and damaging the memory-forming mechanism that occurs in a seahorse-shaped region of the brain called the hippocampus.
Under normal conditions, the human brain maintains a good balance between excitatory and inhibitory chemicals. When we drink alcohol, this balance is disrupted, resulting in an increase in the total amount of inhibitory chemical signals in the brain. However, with short-term alcohol use, this balance is restored over time, and the effects are usually reversible.
However, with prolonged use of alcohol, this balance can be completely disturbed, which can lead to “tolerance”. In such cases, the person eventually becomes less susceptible to small amounts of alcohol. This often leads to people drinking even more alcohol.
Alcohol can have many short-term effects that people find beneficial, which can lead to more alcohol consumption later on. With prolonged use, abstinence from alcohol can cause discomfort or withdrawal.
These effects subside as soon as the alcoholic drinks alcohol. This is a vicious circle, as a result of which alcoholics use alcohol more and more often.
Alcohol is addictive through complex mechanisms that involve numerous neurotransmitters in the brain. One example is dopamine, which signals and helps us feel “rewarded” in response to an action. People tend to repeat rewarding actions. Therefore, addiction can easily result from altered actions of dopamine in the brain, among other chemicals.
Drinking alcohol is part of socialization in many cultures. It is also featured prominently in books, movies, and social media. However, very little effort is spent understanding the dark side – what drinking alcohol does to our bodies and brains.
Alcohol affects the signals between brain cells in different ways. This leads to an altered mental state, behavioral changes and various effects on the body. It can have many effects that are considered desirable, such as reducing social inhibition. Most of us know that addiction and long-term use harm our bodies, but even short-term use has been shown by studies to cause long-term damage. It is important to remember that the seemingly harmless effects of alcohol are achieved by acting on a variety of brain chemicals and altering its normal functioning. In other words, be careful!