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What Is Alcohol-Related Brain Damage? (ARBD)


Author: Thomas Roth

Last Updated: 2/07/2022

Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) occurs when alcohol consumption damages parts of the human brain. There are different types of ARBD conditions and each one varies depending on the circumstances of the patient. Some cases of ARBD present themselves as severe while other cases can be mild. ARBD is caused by years of alcohol abuse or binge drinking and typically develops in people who are between 40 and 50 years old. That said, signs of the illness might not be prevalent enough to notice until a person’s 60s.

There are several types of alcohol-related brain damage. These types vary but occur in people who abuse alcohol and other substances. In some cases, these conditions can develop in otherwise healthy individuals due to old age.

The conditions are listed down below:

  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
  • Hepatic encephalopathy
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome

1. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is brain damage that occurs from a lack of vitamin B1. Common symptoms include rapid eye movements, blurred vision, memory impairments, loss of muscle coordination, and trouble walking. In many cases, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be treated but symptoms can’t be reversed when it’s caused by alcohol abuse. Instead, symptoms can be managed and improved when alcohol consumption comes to a stop. The condition needs to be diagnosed by a doctor or medical professional. In some cases, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can lead to death.

2. Hepatic Encephalopathy

Hepatic encephalopathy is a loss of brain function that occurs when the liver can’t remove toxins in the blood. The liver removes many toxins from the blood and when alcohol is consumed the liver removes alcohol from the blood. When alcohol is abused the liver becomes damaged and struggles to remove toxins from the blood. These toxins can reach the brain and cause damage over time. In these cases, people can develop hepatic encephalopathy. While toxic chemicals can be removed from the body by medical professionals, the condition can lead to death. Furthermore, common symptoms include a decline in brain function, memory problems, and a musty odor.

3. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a condition that develops in infants and fetuses during pregnancy. When mothers consume alcohol during pregnancy it has the potential to cause fetal alcohol syndrome. While one or two alcoholic drinks don’t always cause an onset of symptoms when alcohol is abused it almost always causes fetal alcohol syndrome. The condition causes changes to an infant’s development and can cause death and other illnesses. One common way to diagnose Fetal alcohol syndrome is to notice a lack of symmetry in someone’s facial features. Some other symptoms and harms include damaged jaws, airways, brain development problems, and mental health issues.

What are the Effects of Alcohol on the Brain?

Alcohol affects the brain in many ways. Frequent alcohol consumption and binge drinking cause damage to brain tissue and can impair memory.

The effects of alcohol on the brain are listed below.

  • Short-term effects
  • Long-term effects

1. Short-Term Effects

The short-term effects of alcohol vary based on how much alcohol is consumed. In low amounts, the short-term effects of alcohol are euphoric and may cause people to become flushed and mildly impaired. When alcohol is consumed in larger quantities the effects become worse. Memory is impaired, fine motor functions are reduced, slurred speech occurs, and other bodily functions can slow down. When consumed in large amounts (binge drinking) alcohol poisoning can occur. Alcohol poisoning can result in death or a coma if not treated.

2. Long-Term Effects

Studies have shown that the long-term effects of alcohol abuse and alcohol consumption lead to changes in the brain. Alcoholics typically have smaller brains because of tissue shrinkage and they also suffer from memory damage and a reduction in general cognitive function. Some other long-term effects result in psychological damage like changes in depression, mood, and anxiety. Long-term alcohol abuse can also result in alcohol addiction and co-occurring mental illnesses that come with alcohol abuse. When abusing alcohol over many years people can also experience alcohol-related brain damage and dementia. Damage to other organs like the liver, esophagus, and stomach can also occur.

What Part of the Brain is Affected by Alcohol?

Alcohol affects many parts of the brain. Regions of the brain that are infected vary based on an individual’s reaction to alcohol, how much alcohol is consumed, and other factors. Alcohol impacts several regions of the brain and many neurotransmitters in the brain. For example, alcohol interacts with the GABA receptor and damages its ability to produce chemicals within the brain naturally.

Some other parts of the brain that are affected by alcohol are listed below.

  • Nucleus accumbens: Nucleus accumbens is part of the reward structure within the brain. This structure of the brain is responsible for satisfaction, happiness, greed, and some other moods. Alcohol is addictive because it artificially causes this region of the brain to produce these chemicals.
  • Frontal Lobes: The frontal lobes are responsible for cognition, memory, and judgment. When alcohol is consumed it impairs all of these brain functions.
  • Hippocampus: The hippocampus is responsible for storing memories and makes up a big percentage of a person’s personality. When alcohol interacts with this region of the brain it leads to memory loss and changes in personality over long periods.
  • Cerebellum: The cerebellum is responsible for balance and movement in the brain. When alcohol interacts with this region of the brain it reduces motor function and leads to a loss of coordination.
  • Hypothalamus and Pituitary: The hypothalamus and pituitary are responsible for coordinating brain function through the regulation of hormones. While these glands are stimulated by alcohol and increase sexual desires, it leads to a decrease in overall sexual performance.
  • Medulla: The medulla oblongata is a body’s power switch. It’s responsible for controlling things like heart rate, breathing, digestion, and other important functions of your body. The Medulla is impacted by alcohol in a way that causes it to slow down, which can slow down vital functions like breathing.

While alcohol interacts with some areas of the brain in more ways than others, it’s important to understand that alcohol impacts the entire brain and body.

How Alcohol Causes Brain Damage

Alcohol causes brain damage in many ways. Frequent alcohol consumption over many years wears down neurotransmitters in the brain and other parts of the brain.

The common causes of alcohol-related Brain damage are listed below.

  • Damage to nerve cells
  • Low levels of thiamine
  • Damage to Blood vessels
  • Increased risk of head injuries

1). Damage to Nerve Cells

When a person consumes too much alcohol the brain becomes overwhelmed and imbalanced. The GABA receptor begins to struggle to produce natural chemicals, while serotonin and dopamine flood the brain. Over long periods, alcohol consumption can damage nerve cells in the brain that are responsible for sending messages within the brain and throughout the body. When this occurs, people have reduced motor functions and reduced brain function. Completing tasks becomes harder when nerve cells in the brain are damaged.

2). Low Levels of Thiamine

In the human body, the brain needs thiamine (Vitamin B1). In the brain, thiamine helps the brain function properly, send messages throughout the body, and more. Appropriate levels of thiamine are often associated with a regular and balanced diet, which is something many alcoholics don’t have. Low levels of thiamine in the brain are responsible for the majority of alcohol-related brain damage problems. These low levels can lead to dementia, ARBD, altimeters, and other mental health disorders. It can be treated with vitamin B1 intake, less alcohol consumption, and a balanced diet.

3). Damage to Blood Vessels

Blood vessels carry oxygen to different parts of the brain. The brain needs oxygen to function properly and a lack of oxygen can lead to complications. These complications include strokes and brain damage, which can be fatal. Consuming alcohol damages Blood Vessels that carry oxygen and other nutrients to the brain. Damaging these blood vessels results in higher blood pressure and an increased risk of strokes. Moreover, damaged blood vessels can restrict the brain from getting enough oxygen and when this issue is prolonged it leads to brain damage.

4). Increased Risk of Head Injuries

Someone who consumes large quantities of alcohol frequently has a higher risk of head injuries. People who consume alcohol have a higher risk of head injuries because binge drinking and alcohol consumption leads to a lack of fine motor functions and memory impairment. This can cause people to fall and lose their memory of falling. Alcohol consumption over long periods can also result in lower levels of thiamine that contribute to head injuries due to low vitamin B1 levels in the brain. Falling from consuming alcohol can also cause concussions that lead to brain damage.

Are Women More Vulnerable to Alcohol Effects on the Brain?

Yes, women are more vulnerable to alcohol effects on the brain. Research has proven that women who binge drink or abuse their brains with alcohol develop more damage than men over long periods. Moreover, teenage women who reported binge drinking had a smaller brain size and less mental function than male peers who reported binge drinking. While the reasons are not well-known, it’s clear that women have a higher risk than men of developing brain damage from alcohol abuse.

Can One Night of Binge Drinking Cause Brain Damage from Alcohol?

Yes, research shows that one night of binge drinking can cause brain damage from alcohol. That said, the chances of permanent brain damage occurring from one night of binge drinking are rare. Still, binge drinking a few times per week can lead to rapid brain damage and ARBD.

Can an MRI Detect Brain Damage from Alcohol?

Yes, an MRI can detect brain damage from alcohol. Structured MRI can be used to show tissue changes in the brain and damage that occurs. It’s been used for years to observe tissue shrinkage and other forms of brain damage. MRI machines can also be used to show the reversal of brain damage from alcohol as the tissue begins to heal. Several MRI studies show the vulnerabilities of white matter to alcohol and how alcohol damages it over time.

Can You Recover From Brain Damage Caused by Alcohol?

Yes, you can recover from brain damage caused by alcohol. Brain damage caused by alcohol that’s not in the form of dementia can be treated. While conditions like dementia continue to get worse over time, alcohol-related brain damage from conditions like ARBD can be treated and patients can make a full recovery. In fact, when alcohol consumption stops for long periods memory function and other cognitive functions return to normal.

How Long Does Brain Recovery Take After Alcohol Abuse?

Recovering from alcohol abuse is a long process that begins with rehabilitation and medications for brain damage. Rehabilitation for alcoholism cases can take between 30 days and 3 months to complete. In some cases, people may need to spend extended periods in addiction recovery programs. Alcoholics needs to treat their alcohol addiction before focusing on brain recovery.

When it comes to brain recovery the recovery process depends on the individual. Some people recover quickly, while others will never make a full recovery. That said, the average recovery time is between 6 months and 1 year. Longer recovery times can also occur in people with worse cases of ARBD. These cases may require more than a year or two before people make a full recovery.

What is the Difference Between ARBD and Dementia?

ARBD and dementia are similar conditions that damage the brain. That said, ARBD and dementia have some key differences that distinguish the conditions from each other. First and foremost, ARBD does not get worse over time like dementia. While more alcohol consumption can lead to worse ARBD, people who stop consuming alcohol and get treatment can experience a full recovery. While this doesn’t happen in all cases, ARBD is more reversible than dementia and often has better outcomes.

On the other hand, dementia is a progressive brain condition that continues to get worse. Even with treatment and minimal alcohol consumption, dementia is fatal in 100% of patients. While the time it takes to progress to later stages can be reduced, there is no cure. These are the key differences that make ARBD and dementia different.