How Alcohol Abuse Affects the Brain and the Mental States That Can Result

That feeling you get after you have had a few drinks is more than just a buzz. Alcohol has a physical effect on the brain which, with repeated exposure, can permanently change the brain.

Learning about these effects is crucial to understanding why addiction to alcohol can be so difficult to overcome.

Alcohol and Brain Chemistry

When someone consumes alcohol, it directly affects the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. These chemical messengers transmit signals through the body that control behavior, emotion, and thought processes.


Alcohol first affects the excitatory neurotransmitters, which regulate activity and energy levels of the brain. This creates an immediate effect of slowing down the connections in the brain. This behavior:

  • Shortens response times
  • Creates cognitive issues
  • Slurs speech

The Cerebellum

How Alcohol Abuse Affects the Brain and the Mental States That Can Result

Alcohol also affects the cerebellum, which is the center of movement and balance in the body. This causes the individual who is under the influence of alcohol to stagger, walk off-balance, and even fall down.

Alcohol affects the medulla, the part of the brain that controls functions like body temperature, breathing and consciousness, which can make you feel sleepy.


Finally, alcohol increases the release of dopamine in the brain. This is the “feel good” hormone that rewards you for pleasurable activities. Because alcohol releases more dopamine, your brain is rewarded when you drink.

At the same time, the alcohol increases the brain chemicals linked to depression. The good feelings of the dopamine simply mask feelings of depression for a while.

As the alcohol addiction progresses, the dopamine response lessens – but the brain’s desire for it increases. This causes the individual to turn to alcohol with more intensity as they look for that dopamine fix.

Over time, the feelings of depression that the alcohol also caused rise to the surface, and the individual, now thoroughly addicted to alcohol, is also in the throes of deep depression.

Short, Medium, and Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Dependency

How do these changes in the brain affect an individual? Here are the short, medium, and long-term effects of alcohol addiction on the brain:

How Alcohol Abuse Affects the Brain and the Mental States That Can Result

  • Short-term: Alcohol can cause short-term memory lapses known as blackouts, as well as problems with balance, speech, cognition, and reaction time.
  • Medium-term: As the effects of dopamine lessen, depression increases.
  • Long-term: Long-term dependence on alcohol leads to permanent brain damage, including shrinking of the brain, deficiencies in the fibers that carry information between brain cells, and a permanent altering of the brain’s chemistry leading to dementia.

Mental conditions like dementia, depression, and impaired memory can all develop with ongoing exposure to alcohol.

Why Seeking Help Is Necessary

The longer an individual is exposed to alcohol, the more intense these symptoms will be and the harder it will be to recover. Once the brain is permanently damaged, some of the cognitive problems associated with alcohol may not be reversed.

That is why it is so important for individuals struggling with alcohol addiction to seek help from a qualified professionals early  before the dependency progresses to the point of permanent brain damage.