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How does alcohol affect the Nervous System

We’ve all heard the statement that “drugs kill brain cells”, but what about alcohol? Does the same thing apply? Does alcohol kill brain cells, and is that why we shouldn’t go out binging on a ton of alcohol?

First lets talk a little about how the brain functions. It’s estimated that there are over 100 billion brain cells (neurons) in the human brain. These cells are unique in that they can communicate very quickly with each other by sending nerve impulses, also known as action potentials. When the nerve impulse reaches the end of the axon, the axon terminals release neurotransmitters which then relays the signal to the next cell.

Obviously, regulating the release of neurotransmitter is a very crucial and exact process. If something goes wrong in this process, this can lead to some “interesting” effects.

There are many different neurotransmitters, and these different neurotransmitters have different functions. In general, some neurotransmitters stimulate/excite certain functions, and others inhibit certain functions.

Now lets talk about Alcohol

Although scientist don’t have a complete understanding of HOW exactly Alcohol affects the nervous system, we have a pretty decent understanding of SOME of the effects. What we do know is that mood altering substances, such as alcohol, influence neurotransmitter activity. We also know some of the specific neurotransmitters that alcohol has its effect on.

Serotonin

This neurotransmitter is a “feel-good” molecule and is very intimately related to your sense of well-being, which is tied to depression. An individual with low levels of serotonin is more likely to become depressed. This is one of the neurotransmitters that alcohol affects. It actually increases the serotonin levels in the brain, which is one of the reasons for the addicting effect of alcohol.

Dopamine

Dopamine is another excitatory neurotransmitter and is also considered to be a “feel-good” molecule. One of the effects of alcohol is to increase dopamine levels, which also contributes to the addictive effect of alcohol.

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid)

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. Alcohol increases GABA activity, which in turns inhibits brain activity. This is one of the main reasons why alcohol is refered to as a depressant. The statement “don’t drink and drive” is in response to this effect, because response time is usually increased. Someone under the influence of alcohol is less likely to respond quick enough to avoid accidents.

Glutamate

This is one of the most important excitatory neurotransmitter in the nervous system. Alcohol affects the receptor for glutamate, which reduces glutamate activity. Glutamate is also highly involved in muscular function, so when it’s activity is supressed, it results in slurred speech, discoordination and a number of other potentially dangerous effects.

Those are some of the effects of Alcohol on the nervous system. However, keep in mind that there is still lots to learn. The take home message is that alcohol isn’t a friend of the nervous system. This article is not meant to address whether or not you should drink. The focus is primarily to show you the physiological effects of alcohol on the nervous system. Keep in mind that we haven’t gotten into the effects on the other systems in the body, but in general, it’s not a good thing.

Questions or Comments?

If you have any questions or comments about how this process works, or what I’ve written here, please post them below in the comments section.

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Leslie Samuel is the creator of Interactive Biology. His mission is to use this site to Make Biology fun for people all over the world.

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8 Responses to “How does alcohol affect the Nervous System”

  1. Jake July 9, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

    Great article. Really appreciate the info… I am researching the effect of alcohol on the nervous system in regards to anxiety and panic disorder. However, I do want to point out a typo under the “GABA” section:

    “The statement “don’t drink and drive” is in response to this effect, because response time is usually increased.”

    Threw me off because it says alcohol “increases” response time, when the author clearly meant “decreases”. Hope this helps in clarifying the message.

    • Aaron April 11, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

      An increase in response time would mean it takes longer to respond, its not a typo

  2. leo October 23, 2012 at 2:47 pm #

    he meant that the time it takes to respond is increased… there is no typo

  3. Lloyd November 27, 2012 at 6:21 am #

    Good article Mr Samuel. I would like to know more about how I can heal my brain as I have abused alcohol and other drugs for about a decade and my hangovers are not just about feeling bad I feel terrified my head feels screwed up.

  4. Joshua Hoover April 27, 2013 at 4:18 am #

    Can long term memory loss occur due to alcohol abuse?

  5. Gerry July 5, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    As an alcoholic for about a decade,I would say memory problems really only occurred while I was drinking or,while detoxing.
    Now sober for nearly a year now I find that my memory is fine.
    The problem with heavy drinking or binge drinking is,I found it hard to define if I had dreamt a situation or if it really happened.
    My advice to anyone who feels that they maybe drinking to much is STOP! It will catch up with you faster than you can imagine,and one thing I know for sure it will destroy EVERYTHING! you have in your life.
    I hope iv’e been of some help.

    • Hebe March 20, 2014 at 11:48 am #

      Is your life back in order now?
      Just wondering if it can be rebuilt…
      Everyone says alcohol is a depressant, but then articles like this imply to me that it increases serotonin and dopamine which are uplifting, and it only depresses the physical functions like impairment of speech and motor coordinates. This is not lowering mood?

  6. Azka Munawar July 15, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    Thanks for the information on the different types of nervous systems :)