For Freshmen. By Freshmen.
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Jul 12 2016
by Meghan Field

How Alcohol Works to Impair Your Brain

By Meghan Field - Jul 12 2016
Impaired memory. Slurred speech. Blurred vision. Difficulty walking. Slowed reaction times. Ruined relationships. Death. These can be the effects of alcohol on one’s brain, even after one drink. If you have a couple of drinks and then realize drinking is not for you, you will have various short term effects on your brain. But, because alcohol is an addictive substance, it is rather important to be aware of the long term effects, as well.

Let’s backtrack. As the majority of people know, the legal drinking age in the United States is 21, but unfortunately there will always be students who are underage drinkers. Whether those people started to drink in high school or college, their health could be in serious danger. You might think to yourself that one or two drinks are not going to be harmful to you in the long run.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the United States, a standard drink contains 0.6-ounces of pure alcohol. The most common standard drinks are 12-ounces of beer, 8-ounces of malt liquor, 5-ounces of wine and 1.5-ounces of gin, rum, vodka or whisky, just to name a few. To put this in perspective, on average, a bottle of water is 16.9-ounces. A can of soda is usually 12-ounces. A can of regular beer (5 percent alcohol content) is 12-ounces. That's why it is so easy for people to drink way more than their body ordinarily will allow. A person who drinks on a regular basis will begin to build up a tolerance to alcohol.

The darker colors in an intoxicated brain indicates the depressed brain activity whereas the bright colors in the sober brain show healthy brain activity.


In order to understand alcohol tolerance, you need to first understand how alcohol metabolizes in your body. According to the National Institutes of Health, after alcohol is swallowed, it is absorbed primarily from the small intestine into the veins that collect blood from the stomach, bowels and portal vein, which leads to the liver. Then the alcohol ends up in the liver where the it is exposed to various enzymes and then metabolized.

Legally, in the United States, you are considered to be an offender if you are driving with a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of over 0.08. Again, it cannot be stressed enough that even the tiniest amount of alcohol can cause many long lasting implications on others even if you do not consider yourself "drunk."

Alcohol can severely damage the nervous system, which the brain is a part of. Since alcohol has many neurological affects on the brain, alcoholics and chronic drinkers are at the highest risk for obtaining some sort of severe damage to their brain, but anyone is at risk. Most often, according to the National Institutes of Health, the type of brain damage that occurs is direct. Therefore, the neurological abnormalities in their mental functioning and changes in behavior associated with brain impairment can all occur merely because alcohol is considered a toxic substance. Images of the brain created with modern neuroradiological techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography scans (CT), show a clear relationship, which was to be expected. The longer one has been drinking alcohol, the more brain damage that is done. Commonly, the brain either shrinks or has tissue damage, or both. Side effects include poor temperature regulation, muscle weakness and alternations in sleep patterns, just to name a few.

There are three main parts of the brain that alcohol begins to attack after a drink. Each part, side effect wise, gets worse and worse.


Unfortunately, alcohol is also capable of impairing ones memory after only a few drinks, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. You are at a higher risk of impaired judgement when alcohol is consumed quickly or on an empty stomach. The alcohol can make you pass out or go through a period of time where you are unable to recall parts of or entire events, therefore you may make mistakes while talking about certain things that have happened. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there was a survey conducted of 772 undergraduate students, 51 percent reported blacking out at some point during their college career and 40 percent said they have blacked out within the past year.

Now, on to dopamine. The continuous use of alcohol, which happens in alcoholics, affects a person's dopamine levels. In order to get the same emotional effect that alcohol once gave you after one or two drinks, your body is becoming dependent on the substance and needs even more to satisfy what was once able to be satisfied in a smaller quantity. Then alcohol can quickly evolve into an addiction. Researchers and scientists have studied alcoholics and came to the conclusion that people literally become dependent on alcohol for one reason: an alcoholics brain works in such a way that, once the alcohol consumption is interrupted, their need grows bigger because they are unable to produce dopamine anymore.

Since there are so many negative side effects that are bound to happen with drinking alcohol, especially at a young age, it is rather important to limit your intake of this substance. Of course, it is okay to have a drink once in a while, but I caution you to not drink on a daily basis. You may not only be putting yourself in danger, but others as well. This may seem self explanatory, but if you get in the car and drink while you are not sober, you are putting both your own life and others lives at risk due to a stupid decision that was made by you. If you have sex while you are intoxicated, it can be considered rape. If you do something stupid without remembering it, someone probably took a picture or video of you while you where doing it and shared it with others. It will come back to haunt you when it is time to get a job or an internship. Basically alcohol, because of its abilities to impair your judgement, can cause you to make decisions that you would not normally make that will change your life forever.

In most cases, the amount of drinks it takes for alcohol to start to affect various parts of the brain is constant, no matter who is drinking. Above is the most common amount of drinks one needs to consume in order for their to be issues with the various lobes of their brain.


Educate yourself. Learn the laws. Know how much you can handle. Be aware of the dangers. But most importantly, be safe, and if you choose to drink, remember that moderation is key. You don’t need to put yourself or others in danger just because you are involved in something you are not allowed to LEGALLY be doing.

Lead Image Credit: Pixabay

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Meghan Field - Pennsylvania State University

Meghan is a sophomore at Penn State - University Park. She's from Hershey, PA. She is going to major in Biobehavioral Health and Psychology with a minor in Global Health. She has been dancing her whole life and has always had an interest in writing and anything science related. Instagram is @meghanfield.

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