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Updated on September 14, 2023
7 min read

Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells & Is It Reversible?

Although it's common to think alcohol can kill brain cells, it doesn't. However, that doesn't mean there's no effect on your brain. Alcohol is a neurotoxin that damages cognitive function in multiple ways.

Research indicates heavy drinking can damage neurons by altering the structure, development, and function of dendrites. Dendrites are responsible for problem-solving, memory, and focus. They are essential for the communication between neurons.15

Alcohol use also leads to loss of brain volume, causing brain shrinkage. This doesn't just apply to heavy drinking. Some studies suggest this is also true for moderate alcohol consumption.2 

Why Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

Researchers point to thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency as the culprit. Thiamine is an essential vitamin for the metabolism of dendrites.

Alcohol inhibits the absorption of thiamine. Because of this, people who struggle with alcohol use disorders (AUDs) end up malnourished, leading to thiamine deficiency.

What is Considered Heavy Drinking?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), heavy drinking for men is having four or more drinks per day or more than fourteen drinks per week. For women, this is three or more drinks daily or more than seven in a week. 

Does Moderate Alcohol Consumption Damage Your Brain? 

A recent British study showed moderate drinkers tripled their risk of brain damage over 30 years. Specifically, moderate drinking is associated with a reduction in brain volume. According to the study, moderate drinkers had a three times greater risk of brain shrinkage over 30 years.12 

Heavy drinkers had six times the risk, showing that more drinking leads to more damage.12  However, this shrinkage does not appear to be due to brain cell death but from other damage.

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The Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

When a person drinks alcohol, several brain areas are affected. This causes short and long-term emotional and behavioral changes. One area of the brain alcohol affects is the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for thinking and decision-making.

Here are the short- and long-term side effects of alcohol on your brain:

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

The short-term side effects of alcohol on your brain include:

  • Reduced inhibitions
  • Behavioral and mood changes
  • Aggression
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Possible loss of consciousness

This happens because alcohol affects the limbic system and the cerebellum, which controls emotions and coordination respectively. Alcohol can also affect the hypothalamus. This interferes with hormones and can cause excessive urination and sexual impairment. 

Once alcohol reaches the medulla, it can affect most basic bodily functions such as consciousness, breathing, and heart rate. Because of this, drinking may cause the person to feel sleepy and slow down their heart and breathing. 

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Some long-term effects of alcohol on the brain include:

Memory Loss 

Long-term alcohol use causes persistent memory impairment. This affects short-term memories or "working memory." Because of this, short-term memories never get stored as new long-term memories.

Brain Atrophy

Studies show that alcohol use causes parts of the brain to shrink or become less dense.15 This is called brain atrophy.

The frontal lobes are important for voluntary movement, language, and higher-level thinking. One study showed shrinkage of 11% in this area in heavy drinkers.15

Shrinkage of the cerebellum, which controls balance and movement, can happen in long-term drinkers. This is also true of the corpus callosum, an area that links the right and left sides of the brain, allowing communication between them.2 

Another vulnerable area is the hippocampus, which is vital for learning and memory. Atrophy in this area is also strongly linked to Alzheimer's Disease.1

Neurogenesis Issues

Neurogenesis is the creation of new brain cells. It is now known that the body can generate new brain cells (neurons). 

Scientists also know alcohol interferes with this process, which some think may explain brain atrophy.However, it has been shown that neurogenesis does begin again if a person stops drinking, though it takes months for the new neurons to be put in place.2

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke syndrome and Korsakoff syndrome are two disorders that often occur one after the other. It is a devastating brain disorder associated with a lack of thiamine. This happens because heavy drinkers eat poorly and are often malnourished.

Wernicke syndrome develops first and has the following symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Lack of physical coordination
  • Involuntary movements
  • Abnormal involuntary eye movements or eye paralysis 

Without medical intervention, 80% of affected people develop Korsakoff syndrome. In this phase, the person shows significant short-term memory impairment, unable to create new memories and retain new information. Sometimes long-term memories are lost as well. 

The ability to pay attention and have a conversation is not affected, so you may seem normal to a casual observer. You may not even be aware of the problem. WKS may cause permanent nerve damage and weakness in the arms and legs.

Alcohol Dependence & Withdrawal

Many heavy drinkers find quitting difficult, even if they want to. This is due to alcohol dependence or withdrawal. If you stop drinking, you may experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms ranging from mild to severe.

Withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Tremors
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Seizures
  • Sweating
  • High fever
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart palpitations
  • Hallucinations
  • Delirium tremens (DTs)

If you have an alcohol use disorder (AUD) and a mental health problem, it is essential to seek help for both conditions.

Can You Lose IQ From Drinking?

Research indicates alcohol exposure over a significant period of time will lower IQ. A study of just under 50,000 Swedish military conscripts between 1969 and 1970 found that IQ was inversely correlated with heavy alcohol consumption.11 A study in neighboring Norway found similar results.9

Women who drink while pregnant put their children at higher risk of developing fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Children born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) have IQs well below average.9

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Is Alcohol-Induced Brain Damage Reversible?

Research has shown that the brain damage caused by alcohol can be at least partially reversed. According to MRI studies, the brain recovers to some extent after a significant period of abstinence from 1 month to a year.2 Brain scans have also shown that some brain atrophy can be reversed.

Some improvement has been seen in just one month of abstinence, with mild improvements after 6 months. The degree of recovery depends on the duration and quantity of alcohol use, though most published studies indicate complete recovery is rare.13

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How Long Does it Take Your Brain to Heal From Alcohol?

The level of alcohol-related brain damage depends on factors such as the:

  • Severity of alcohol use
  • Age you started drinking at
  • Duration of alcohol use

Generally, it can take months for your brain to generate new cells. The reversal of brain volume loss was seen as soon as a month after the drinking stopped. Some mental faculties also begin to improve after 6 months.

However, this process is uneven, and full recovery is unlikely. One study showed no regrowth at all of the prefrontal lobes after 6 months.13

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder

Symptoms of alcohol use disorder include:

  • Inability to control the amount of alcohol consumed
  • Inability to stop drinking, despite negative health consequences
  • Drinking alone
  • Neglecting important responsibilities to drink
  • Legal problems due to drinking
  • Financial problems
  • Powerful alcohol cravings
  • High alcohol tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating, and shaking
  • Weight gain

Treatment Options for Alcohol Use Disorder

If you or someone you know is showing symptoms of AUD, consider reaching out to a healthcare professional. Although there is no cure for AUD, there are treatment programs that can help.

Available treatment options include:

the health effects of alcohol
Updated on September 14, 2023
15 sources cited
Updated on September 14, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Anand, Kuljeet Singh, and Vikas Dhikav. “Hippocampus in health and disease: An overview.” Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, vol. 15, no. 4, 2012, pp. 239-46. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.
  2. Crews, Fulton. “Alcohol-Related Neurodegeneration and Recovery.” Alcohol research & health : the journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, vol. 31, no. 4, 2008, pp. 377-88. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.
  3. Freudenrich, Craig, and Michelle Konstantinovsky. “How Alcohol Works.” https://science.howstuffworks.com/.
  4. Liu, Huimin, et al. “Thiamine metabolism is critical for regulating correlated growth of dendrite arbors and neuronal somata.” Scientific reports, vol. 7, no. 1, 2017, p. 5342. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.
  5. Mattson, Sarah N., et al. “Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: Neuropsychological and Behavioral Features.” Neuropsychology review, vol. 21, no. 2, 2011, pp. 81-101. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.
  6. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Cognitive Impairment and Recovery From Alcoholism.” https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/, 2001.
  7. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Drinking Levels Defined.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  8. National Organization for Rare Disorders. “NIH GARD Information: Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.” https://rarediseases.org/.
  9. Rogne, Adrian F., et al. “Intelligence, alcohol consumption, and adverse consequences. A study of young Norwegian men.” Scandinavian journal of public health, vol. 49, no. 4, 2021, pp. 411-418. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.
  10. Saitz, Richard. “Introduction to Alcohol Withdrawal.” Alcohol Health Res World, vol. 22, no. 1, 1998, pp. 5-12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.
  11. Sjölund,, Sara, et al. “IQ and Level of Alcohol Consumption—Findings from a National Survey of Swedish Conscripts.” Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research, vol. 39, no. 3, 2015, pp. 548-55. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.
  12. Topiwala, Anya, et al. “Moderate alcohol consumption as risk factor for adverse brain outcomes and cognitive decline: longitudinal cohort study.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 357, 2017, p. 2353. https://www.bmj.com/.
  13. Wobrock, Thomas, and Peter Falkai. “Effects of abstinence on brain morphology in alcoholism.” European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience, vol. 259, no. 3, 2009, pp. 143-50. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.
  14. Zahr, Natalie M., et al. “Clinical and pathological features of alcohol-related brain damage.” Nature reviews. Neurology, vol. 7, no. 5, 2011, pp. 284-294. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.
  15. Zhou, Feng C., et al. “Chronic Alcohol Drinking Alters Neuronal Dendritic Spines in the Brain Reward Center Nucleus Accumbens.” Brain research, vol. 1134, no. 1, 2207, pp. 148-61. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.
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