Categories: Health Information

How Alcohol Causes Brain Shrinkage


Numerous investigations have revealed that severe alcohol use disorder patients have brains that are lighter and smaller than those of control subjects. The networks that the brain uses to interact with other regions are impacted by this alcohol-related brain atrophy. Affected areas of the brain include those that provide communication between neurons.

Some Damage Is Reversible

Abstinence can mitigate some (but not all) of the harm that prolonged alcohol abuse does to the brain. Despite decision-making deficiencies caused by brain shrinkage, people with alcohol use disorders can maintain long-term abstinence with the right interventions.

How Alcohol Causes Brain Shrinkage

Most of the brain’s intricate mental processes are under the direction of the grey matter in the cerebral cortex. The cortex is packed with neurons that are linked by fibers to other neurons in the brain, spinal cord, and other brain regions. The “hard-wiring” of the brain is made up of nerve fibers.


To enable the neurons to “communicate” with other neurons, these nerve fibers have multiple shorter strands called dendrites that shoot out like the roots of a tree. A neuron can communicate with five other neurons at once or 10,000 neurons at once.

The shrinking that alcohol abuse can bring about is most likely to affect the white matter and dendrites of the brain.

Alcohol abuse can harm the brain in more ways than just shrinking the brain. Alcohol can also alter the way that neurotransmitters work chemically (chemical messengers that carry signals between the brain to the rest of the body).

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Chronic alcohol abuse results in intricate, hazardous metabolic and dietary interactions that might impair brain function. Some of these still require further research.

  • When alcohol is metabolized, a molecule called acetaldehyde is created that may have harmful effects.
  • Malnutrition, in particular thiamine deficiency, maybe a factor.
  • Damage to the brain can also result from liver cirrhosis.
  • Sleep apnea and head injuries can also cause brain damage.

Cirrhosis, thiamine deficiency, and alcohol are all related. Some scientists think they play a complex role in brain injury.

Is Brain Shrinkage Permanent?

If a person stops drinking and continues to abstain for an extended period of time, some of the brain damage brought on by alcohol may be repaired. However, some of it is irreversible and permanent.

The loss of nerve cells is the main long-term harm brought on by alcohol. The frontal cortex, cerebellum, and other areas deep inside the brain all contain nerve cells that cannot be regenerated once they are destroyed.

However, abstinence can slow or stop dendritic shrinking. According to studies, they will start to grow once more after a few weeks or months of abstention. When this occurs, brain function might advance.

Treatment can start to reverse some of the brain damage brought on by liver cirrhosis.

Thiamine tablets make it simple to heal brain damage caused by thiamine deficit in alcohol abusers, but recurrent deficiencies can result in irreversible damage.

MRI Images Show How Alcohol Can Damage the Brain

Impact of Brain Shrinkage Caused by Alcohol Use

Alcohol’s negative effects on the brain’s reward system and decision-making processes are one factor contributing to the high relapse risk among those with alcohol use disorders. As a result, the individual is driven by quick incentives ra ther than gradual ones. Alcohol and other addictive substances have immediate intoxication benefits.


Chronic alcohol abuse alters the reward system in the brain chemically to the point. Where the drinker develops a pathological desire for rewards.

The frontal lobe of the brain, is responsible for inhibition. Decision-making, problem-solving, and judgment, are impacted by long-term, excessive alcohol use. It is challenging to maintain long-term sobriety when one has this kind of brain damage.

Abstinence, which helps undo the harm, can assist persons with alcohol use disorders to overcome these obstacles. When driven, they can eventually attain long-term, multi-year abstinence. 8

For information about support groups and treatment centers in your region. call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357. If you or a loved one are battling substance use or addiction.


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