Is It True: Drinking Too Much Alcohol Kills Brain Cells?

Posted by Nilesh Mondal in Health and Life, Is It True
April 6, 2017

There are two kinds of parents, essentially: those who explain, and others who scare. Mine invariably belong to the second group, and so I grew up not knowing there were things which stung, things which hurt and things which caused no harm other than lulling yourself into a forgetful slumber. I grew up learning, almost everything around you, could or would lead to the worst possible circumstances. The fact that I might someday experience the effect of alcohol consumption was naturally my parent’s worst nightmare. They countered this in the only way they knew possible: by telling me alcohol kills brain cells, and long before someone actually dies from alcohol poisoning, they’ll lose their entire array of cognitive abilities and probably won’t remember their own name. The scientific conclusions to this, however, aren’t absolutely conclusive as well, but let me tell you, it’s definitely not as bad as my parents made it sound.

Alcohol definitely does something to our brains, you might suggest. How else would you explain the setting dizziness, the slurred speech, the eventual loss of inhibitions and control over emotions, and in dire cases blackouts and complete forgetfulness? However, the reasons behind these symptoms might be much simpler than you assumed. While it is true that ethyl alcohol kills cells, leading to its use as antiseptic in killing harmful microorganisms, it can’t kill our brain cells in the same way because of two factors.

Firstly, the alcohol we ingest isn’t allowed to accumulate and travel unchecked through our body. Our liver works furiously to release enzymes which digest this ethyl alcohol, breaking it down into simpler forms such as acetaldehyde, then acetate, which are further broken down into carbon dioxide and water and eliminated from our bodies. Another reason why alcohol doesn’t have such harsh effect on our bodies is because of the sheer volume of alcohol we’d need to consume for it to effectively damage a large enough number of brain cells to cause loss of cognitive abilities or long term memory.

So, if alcohol doesn’t really kill our brain cells, what could be the cause of the drunken stupors and emotional outburst after a night of drinking? The answer lies in our neurons (nerve cells), as indicated in a study conducted by the Washington University. The study shows that the effect alcohol has on our brain cells is to produce certain steroids which interfere in the passing of information between dendrites (which are the branching ends of our neurons), resulting in the slurred speech, movement impairment and memory loss. There have been cases of neuron death being related to alcoholism. However, the real cause of this has been found to be pre-existing medical conditions, for example, the Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome or acute B1 deficiency, which were only elevated by the consumption of alcohol.

Of course, alcohol consumption is a matter of preference, and alcoholism has its share of other health hazards, like liver cirrhosis and alcohol poisoning on drinking alcohol which isn’t properly brewed. But as they say, the boat might be sinking, but at least you don’t have to worry about being thirsty.