How alcohol causes brain shrinkage

Multiple studies have found that the brains of people with severe alcohol abuse disorders are smaller and lighter than those of non-alcoholics.Compared with the brains of non-alcoholics, the brains of alcoholics have “shrinked”.

This brain atrophy affects the brain “wiring” that brain regions use to communicate with other regions, and affects the part of the brain that allows neurons to communicate with neighboring neurons.

Some damage is reversible

Although chronic alcoholism does cause severe brain damage, most of the damage can be reversed by abstinence. Alcoholics can gain long-term sobriety even if they have defects in decision-making.

Hard-wired brain atrophy

The gray matter of the brain in the cerebral cortex controls most of the complex mental functions of the brain. The cortex is full of neurons that connect to different areas of the brain and other neurons in the brain and spinal cord through fibers. Nerve fibers are the white matter or “hard-wired” of the brain.

These nerve fibers have shorter and larger numbers of fibers called dendrites, which branch like the roots of a tree, allowing neurons to “talk” to other neurons. A neuron can communicate with as few as five or as many as 10,000 other neurons at a time.

These two parts of the brain—white matter or hardwired and dendrites—are the parts most affected by atrophy caused by alcoholism.

Of course, brain atrophy is not the only damage to the brain caused by alcohol. Alcohol causes chemical changes in the brain, thereby affecting the function of neurotransmitters.

Alcohol causes complex problems in the brain

A large number of studies conducted on animal and human subjects have shown that long-term alcohol abuse can produce a variety of toxic, metabolic and nutritional factors, and the interaction of these factors leads to mental deficits in alcoholics.

Some of these complications are still not fully understood:

  • Acetaldehyde is a metabolite of alcohol and may cause toxic effects.
  • Malnutrition, especially thiamine deficiency, may play a role.
  • Cirrhosis of the liver can also cause brain damage.
  • Head injuries and sleep apnea can cause brain damage.

Head injuries and sleep apnea are more common among alcoholics and can worsen brain damage.

Alcohol, thiamine deficiency, and liver cirrhosis are related to each other, and some researchers believe that they cause brain damage in complex ways.

Damage may be permanent and temporary

Most of the damage caused by alcohol to the brain can be reversed once you stop drinking and maintain abstinence for a period of time, but some of them are permanent and cannot be eliminated.

The most serious permanent damage caused by alcohol is the loss of nerve cells. According to research, some nerve cells cannot be replaced once they are lost, including nerve cells in the frontal cortex, cerebellum, and other areas deep in the brain.

However, most of the damage caused by alcohol to contractions can be reversed by abstaining from alcohol. This includes dendrites shrinking. Studies have shown that after weeks or months of abstinence, dendrites will begin to grow and spread again.This is related to improving brain function.

When cirrhosis is treated, studies have shown that some of the brain damage it may cause will begin to reverse.Brain damage in alcoholics caused by thiamine deficiency can be easily treated with a certain dose of thiamine, but repeated deficiencies can cause some permanent damage.

Alcohol damage decision-making process

One of the reasons why alcoholics are so prone to relapse is the damage caused by alcohol to the brain’s reward system and decision-making ability.

The result of these changes in the brain’s reward system is that drinkers are more susceptible to immediate rewards rather than delayed rewards. Addictive substances such as alcohol will immediately provide intoxicating rewards.

Long-term heavy drinking can affect the frontal lobe function of the brain, including inhibition, decision-making, problem-solving and judgment. This brain damage makes it difficult for alcoholics to stay awake for a long time.

However, studies have found that alcoholics can and do overcome these obstacles because their brain damage begins to reverse, and when they are motivated to do so, they can achieve long-term, multi-year sobriety.