We Have Beds Available! Call for Same Day Admission.855-722-6926
We Have Beds Available! Call For Same Day Admission. 855-722-6926

From Intoxication to Alcoholism: The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

From Intoxication to Alcoholism: The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Although alcohol is legal for people over the age of 21 in the United States, it still comes with many dangers.

Blackouts, alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related injuries, and DWIs are common. Drinking frequently can also lead to an addiction. All of these problems largely stem from how alcohol impacts the brain.

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Drinking can lead to cognitive, behavioral, and physical changes based on how alcohol affects the brain and its functioning. These changes can range from mild to severe depending largely on the amount consumed as well as the frequency. Other factors that can impact the effects of alcohol on the brain can include genetics, bodyweight, tolerance, age, and the person’s individual health. Regardless of these factors, the effects of alcohol on the brain involve both short- and long-term changes when someone starts to drink regularly.

The Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

When someone has been drinking a significant amount of alcohol, there are visible changes like a rosy complexion or poor coordination. The more they drink in one sitting, the more noticeable these effects are. Along with these outside changes in behavior and physical appearance, there is a lot going on inside their head as well.

The short-term effects of alcohol on the brain may include:

  • Impaired cognition
  • Memory problems
  • Blackouts
  • Poor decision making

While these negative effects of alcohol on the brain can be severe in the moment, they typically go away once the body metabolizes the alcohol. This process could take several hours if the person consumed a large amount in a single sitting. Although the initial effects of alcohol on the brain are fleeting, with time they can add up.

The Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

With excessive and prolonged drinking like from alcoholism, the effects of alcohol on the brain can become much more severe. The problems no longer go away when drinking stops and could lead to permanent and irreversible damage.

According to research, some possible effects of long-term alcohol abuse on the brain include:

  1. Psychological problems
Over time, some psychological effects of alcohol on the brain may include the development of mental health disorders like depression or anxiety. These problems often require their own mental health treatment to see improvements.

  1. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
One of the more serious effects of alcoholism on the brain is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a combination of two severe neurological disorders that are characterized by impaired cognition and learning problems. Autopsy reports showed that brain abnormalities characteristic of these syndromes were found in about 13% of alcoholics.1 In comparison, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is believed to only affect 1-2% of the general population.2

  1. Brain shrinkage
Alcoholic brains have been shown to have decreased volume in several different areas, including most commonly in the frontal lobe that is responsible for problem solving and higher-level thinking. An alcohol detox program and continued abstinence can gain back some tissue volume, but those who continue to drink will see more damage.3

  1. Increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
Dementia is another possible side effect of alcoholism because of the damage that alcohol can have on the brain. While drinking heavily increases risk, there is some research to suggest that drinking in moderation can decrease the risk of dementia.4

  1. Parkinson’s disease
A progressive disorder of the nervous system that is characterized by problems with movement, Parkinson’s disease is more common in people with a history of alcohol use disorder.5

  1. Addiction and dependence
Like many other substances of abuse, frequent alcohol abuse can lead to addiction and dependence. Because drinking is a social activity, it can be harder to tell when someone has a problem. Those who become addicted to alcohol should seek treatment at a drug and alcohol treatment center.

Because of the damaging effects of alcohol on the brain, it is important to get help sooner rather than later if you or someone you know has a drinking problem.

At Banyan Treatment Centers, our nationwide family of treatment centers is here to help you or a loved one get sober. To start the journey to recovery, call us today at 888-280-4763.


  1. NIH -The Role of Thiamine Deficiency in Alcoholic Brain Disease
  2. National Organization for Rare Disorders - Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
  3. Alzheimer’s Society - Alcohol and dementia
  4. BMC - Alcohol use disorders and risk of Parkinson’s disease: findings from a Swedish national cohort study 1972–2008
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa, Director of Digital Marketing
Alyssa is the National Director of Digital Marketing and is responsible for a multitude of integrated campaigns and events in the behavioral health and addictions field. All articles have been written by Alyssa and medically reviewed by our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Darrin Mangiacarne.