Has Drinking Alcohol Damaged Your Brain?

by: Mike Miller

People always talk about the dangerous health effects of alcohol on the brain. And certainly after a person has died they can look at the physical brain and see the damage. But is there a way to assess brain damage while the person is still alive.

Sophisticated Technology

There's lots of very esoteric tools that can measure brain activity. Such technology includes positron emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electrophysiological brain mapping, and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). Reasearchers use these devices to measure various physical aspects of the living brain.

One thing they have found is that drinking over a long periods of time actually shrinks the brain. DTI and MRI can measure these changes. Obviously if the brain and nerves are smaller, then they can process less information.

Researchers have also studied memory and attention of people who are drinkers. It's been well know that these mental factors improve over time once a person has stopped drinking. And then gets worse when that person starts drinking again. By using MRIs these scientists are attempting to see what inside the brain actually changes when somebody stops drinking and then starts drinking again later.


Electroencephalography (EEG) is something that can be used to monitor or record the electrical signals in the brain. Little electrodes are put on the head of the person being monitored. They can sense electrical activities (or brain waves) and graph the activity of the brain as it is happening.

Men who are heavy drinkers have a quite different EEG profile from non-drinkers. They call it the P3 amplitude and it's something an expert can see at a glace. The difference in women is less pronounced, but it is still noticiable. The surprising conclusion after much research is not that alcoholism causes the brainwave changes but the different in brainwaves may indicated that somebody has a propensity to become an alcoholic. A startling conclusion!

They are hoping that if we can identify why these people have a different P3 then maybe there's a gene or something else that can be isolated as a cause of alcoholism.

Meet Your PET

Another interesting tool is the PET scanner which can monitor bloodflow dynamically. Blood flow if measured properly is a good indicator of how well a brain is functiontioning. What they've found is that in long term alcoholics these blood flows are less than with non-drinkers. This change is particularly noticable in the brain's frontal lobes which is the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. That's maybe why alcoholic have such a difficult time in these areas.

The other part of the brain which appear imapacted is the cerebellum. This part of the brain controls coordination and movement. The shaky hands of an alcoholic and difficulty walking? It seems there's a connection here. What these researchers are hoping for is to maybe build some drugs that can help alcoholics who have suffered brain damage from their long-term use of alcohol.

What's Next?

Alcohol and drug abuse have been a problem for centuries. But with the technology of today maybe we can conquer these illnesses with something as simple as a pill? The results are probably years away, but in the meantime, there's always alcohol classes!

Source: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm