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Alcohol Doesn’t Kill Brain Cells But It Does Strip the Wires

A persistent myth about alcohol is that it kills brain cells. For the most part, this isn’t true. Decades of alcohol abuse may cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which may cause cell death, but Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is caused by thiamine deficiency. Alcohol causes poor absorption of thiamine, but it doesn’t directly kill brain cells.

Alcohol can also impair learning and long-term memory. You may be familiar with memory loss from excessive drinking. While blackouts typically only occur at high blood alcohol levels, the presence of alcohol at any level affects memory. One of the ways alcohol works is by impairing the function of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. One of glutamate’s functions is to bind to NMDA receptors. NMDA receptors in the hippocampus are responsible for long-term potentiation of neurons, which is an essential mechanism for turning short-term memories into long-term memories. If you constantly have alcohol in your system, this process doesn’t work as well and memory formation is more difficult.

More recent studies have shown another way that alcohol damages your brain. Brains contain both gray matter and white matter. The gray matter is composed of the main cell bodies in the cortices. It’s the stuff you see from the outside. White matter is the fatty sheath of the cells’ axons, which are what connect the different parts of the brain to each other. Heavy drinking appears to damage the white matter, which means the brain’s wiring is poorly insulated. Just as badly insulated wires in electronic devices causes shorts and glitches, poor insulation in the brain leads to inefficient communication between parts of the brain.

This is especially troubling when the connections to the prefrontal cortex are damaged. Every region of the brain connects to the prefrontal cortex. It’s where information is coordinated and decisions are made. The more that flow of information is disrupted, the less clearly you can think, and the less you are able to control your behavior.

The consequences of this are alarming for anyone who wants to get sober. The impaired flow of information to the prefrontal cortex makes you less able to notice destructive patterns in your behavior, which is one reason many people deny having a problem at all. Once you decide to get sober, the impaired control can make it harder to manager your behavior.

There is good news though. If you quit drinking early enough, you can repair your brain’s white matter. “Early enough” seems to be before about age 50. If you quit drinking before then, your brain will begin to heal. It may help to eat a lot of foods with omega-3 oils–that’s what white matter is made of–and exercise to strengthen connections to the prefrontal cortex.

The sooner you quit drinking, the easier it will be and the more fully you will recover. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Gardens Wellness Center can help you detox and decide on a treatment strategy. Call us today at 844-325-9168 or email us at to learn more.