The Brain After Alcohol (citations)


In the research concerning the long-term effects of alcohol, the most important concern is how repeated alcohol use may influence learning, memory, and other brain activities important for everyday life. The conclusions amongst researchers on this topic are essentially unanimous: the heavier one drinks alcohol the more likely he or she is to have long lasting cognitive impairments. 1 Whether those are simple slips in memory or permanent and debilitating conditions is dependent on how long the individual has been consuming alcohol, and more importantly at what rate.2

Researchers using a variety of brain imaging techniques have shown that when compared to non-drinkers, heavy drinkers show lower rates of brain activity. Indeed, some parts of the brain become notably smaller than the brain structures of a non-drinker.3 How these material deficits influence behavior vary. In the most severe cases heavy drinkers have been shown to have severe memory loss and reduced IQ scores. When paired with a thiamine deficiency this is known as Korsakoff’s syndrome.4


1 Pfefferbaum A., Sullivan E.V., Rosenbloom M.J., Mathalon D.H. & Lim K.O. (1998). A controlled study of cortical gray matter and ventricular changes in alcoholic men over a 5-year interval. Archives of General Psychiatry, 55(10), 905–912; White, A.M. & Swartzwelder, H.S. (2004). Hippocampal function during adolescence: A unique target of ethanol effects. New Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1021, 206-220.

2 ibid.

3 Sullivan, E.V., Marsh, L., Mathalon, D.H., Lim, K.O. & Pfefferbaum, A. (1995). Anterior hippocampal volume deficits in nonamnesic, aging chronic alcoholics. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 19(1), 110-122.

4 Kopelman, M.D. (1995). The Korsakoff syndrome. British Journal of Psychiatry, 166, 154-173.