Alcohol disrupts the neurochemistry of the brain, primarily causing an increase in “inhibitory” signals between brain cells. This causes physical manifestations of intoxication, such as loss of balance, low 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 this happen? And what happens to our brain to achieve these effects?
To understand the mechanism of action of alcohol, 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 in the brain called “neurotransmitters”. Each neuron stores these chemicals in small vesicles near its tail section. 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, similar to how a key fits a lock.
A neurotransmitter can either “excite” a nerve cell, causing it to send a signal, or it “suppresses” or prevents the transmission of a signal by a nerve cell.
A good example of an “excitatory” substance is glutamate, and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an “inhibitory” neurochemical.
Some parts of the brain are specific in choosing neurotransmitters. For example, cells in an area called the substantia nigra use dopamine to transmit signals. Therefore, they are called “dopaminergic” neurons. In other parts of the brain there is a mixture of cells in which different types of neurotransmitters are involved.
The mechanism of action of alcohol on the brain
When we drink alcohol, after a while it gets into the blood, and then, as the blood circulates through the body, it reaches the brain. In the brain, it binds to various neurotransmitter receptors, which leads to various effects. Basically, it binds to the receptors of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, and reduces the reactivity of nerve cells. Such a general decrease in brain activity is called “depression of the central nervous system (CNS).”
In addition, it also causes a similar inhibitory effect in the spinal cord and the lower part of the brain called the brainstem. This is due to the effect on the receptors of a neurotransmitter called “glycine”. All together, this leads to a general relaxed state. The muscular movements of a person slow down, the pupils relax, breathing slows down, confusion and dizziness may occur. The most noticeable effect is the weakening of social inhibition, which allows us to behave in a way that we would not normally behave.
In addition to the 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 movements, which leads to a decrease in the 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. According to available data, alcohol has several destructive effects on the brain both in the short and long term.
Studies have shown that alcohol consumption, even in the short term, can affect memory by interfering with and damaging the mechanism of memory formation that occurs in a seahorse-shaped area 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, which leads to an increase in the total number of inhibitory chemical signals in the brain.
However, with short-term alcohol consumption, this balance is restored after a while, and the consequences are usually reversible. However, with prolonged alcohol consumption, this balance can be completely disrupted, which can lead to “tolerance”. In such cases, a person eventually becomes less susceptible to a small amount of alcohol. This often leads to people consuming even more alcohol.
Alcohol can have many short-term effects that people find beneficial, which may later encourage them to drink alcohol more often. With prolonged use, abstinence from alcohol can cause discomfort or “withdrawal”.
These effects go away as soon as an alcoholic drinks alcohol.
This is a vicious circle, as a result of which alcoholics drink alcohol more and more often.
Alcohol causes addiction through complex mechanisms involving numerous neurotransmitters in the brain. One example is dopamine, which sends a signal and helps us feel a sense of “reward” in response to an action. People tend to repeat actions that bring rewards. Therefore, addiction can easily arise as a result of changes in the action of dopamine in the brain, among other chemicals.
Drinking alcohol is part of socialization in many cultures. It is also widely featured in books, films, and social media. However, very little effort is spent on understanding the dark side – what drinking alcohol does to our body and brain.
Alcohol affects signals between brain cells in different ways. This leads to an altered mental state, a change in behavior and various effects on the body. It can have many effects that are considered desirable, for example, to reduce social inhibition. Most of us know that addiction and long-term use harm our body, but even short-term use, as studies have shown, causes long-term damage. It is important to remember that the seemingly harmless effect of alcohol is achieved through exposure to a variety of brain chemicals and changes in its normal functioning. In other words, be careful!