Understand how alcohol consumption affects the human brain

Expert explains how this substance alters brain activity and body well-being

Excessive alcohol consumption can affect the nervous system Image: ESB Professional | Shutterstock

Despite the numerous advertisements that inform about the effect of alcohol on the body, this substance is still part of many people’s lives. Consumed in moderation, the drink’s effect on the body can even be reduced; however, the big problem caused by it is overconsumption.

Intake abuses are often frequent and can cause serious health problems, especially in the brain region. “Just two small doses of alcohol can cause changes in the areas of the brain responsible for processing information,” says Dr. Fernando Gomes, neurosurgeon and neuroscientist at the Hospital das Clínicas in SP.

Next, the doctor explains how alcohol can affect brain activity and its consequences on the body. Look!

Why does alcohol affect the brain?

The ingestion of alcoholic beverages directly affects the neurotransmitters of the brain. This causes them to be released in different amounts than normal and increase gamma-aminobutyric acid, which causes disinhibition, and dopamine, which gives a feeling of euphoria after the first few doses.

This damage happens because when ethyl alcohol, present in alcoholic beverages, enters the body, one of the effects is that brain cells are damaged and some die. This is because this is a water-soluble substance that accumulates in critical volumes in the organs where blood is most abundant. And the brain is one of them.

Alcohol alters logical thinking and speech (Image: Africa Studio | Shutterstock)

Consequences of the substance on the organ

The cerebral cortex is the area responsible for all thought, information and consciousness processes. “The accumulated damage caused by alcohol in this part hinders rational logical thinking and normal speech development,” warns Dr. Fernando. He also explains that there are damages in the way he walks, due to the disorders suffered in the area of ​​motor coordination and inhibitory control – an area popularly known as “judgment”.

Other harm to the body

At high doses, when alcohol affects the medulla (part of the brainstem that regulates breathing and circulation), there is a risk of blockage in breathing. However, most of the time, before this happens, drowsiness sets in, and many people feel like sleeping after drinking; therefore (and also luckily), they end up not reaching an alcoholic coma. After that, comes the dreaded hangover. This is the body’s response to the revelry that happened in metabolism. This is where the body undergoes a series of biological changes. The result is a typical set of symptoms of intoxication.

The physiological explanation related to this process is: to metabolize excess alcohol, the body ends up overloading all the organs involved in the process, especially the liver, since it is there that enzymes are produced to metabolize ethanol. During binge drinking, this organ also “absorbs” the idea that it needs to work “drunk” and ends up asking for more alcohol, because it goes into a withdrawal crisis. The results are headache, dehydration, nausea, diarrhea and extreme tiredness.

Effect of alcohol on brain aging

Each gram of alcohol consumed causes the brain to age prematurely by one and a half days, according to a study released last January 30 in Scientific Reports, carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California (USC). Scientists used structural data from MRI scans of more than 12,000 people to calculate the brain age predicted of those who have the habit of ingesting alcohol, compared with the relative age of the brain.

The results also showed years less gray matter due to signs of organ deterioration. And despite the findings, scientists concluded that other factors can also lead to accelerated aging, such as genetics and lifestyle.

By Mayra Barreto Cinel

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