Myths and Misconceptions: Drinking alcohol kills your brain cells

There are probably few of us who’ve managed to avoid the dreaded hangover headache thus far: the dull ache reverberating in your skull that increases to an agonizing throb if you try to move. It certainly feels like your brain cells are dying, so it’s no wonder that this has become widely regarded as a ‘fact’.

 

Fortunately for everyone who likes to indulge in a few on a Thursday night, this is a myth. Current evidence suggests that alcohol doesn’t directly kill your brain cells. Alcohol clearly has some effect on our brains – just look at any drunk person and there’s sure to be slurred unintelligible gibberish, stumbling into gutters and choices being made that they’ll regret in the morning.

 

Luckily, these effects are reversible. Even for alcoholics, damage sustained at the ends of neurons, which leads to altered communication in the brain, can repair itself. There are, however, some other nasty effects of long-term excessive alcohol consumption, like brain shrinkage. Damage to the liver, our toxin-processing organ, can result in a buildup of toxins in the brain, and eventually lead to decreased brain function. A lack of vitamin B1 is also prevalent in alcoholics, which can result in some unpleasant brain disorders.

 

What about drinking in moderation? An Australian study indicates that moderate drinking might be associated with better mental cognition. Those who drank up to 14 drinks per week for men, and up to 7 for women, exhibited better cognitive functioning than non-drinkers, occasional drinkers and heavy drinkers.

 

But don’t go downing a glass of celebratory wine just yet – there’s also evidence that drinking alcohol, even in moderate amounts, detrimentally affects brain plasticity. Plasticity refers to the reorganisation of neural pathways in our brain. When we learn something new, for example, connections in our brain change. Drinking alcohol could potentially worsen our brain’s ability to make these new connections. The consumption of alcohol was also observed to negatively impact the production and retention of new cells in rat brains.

 

So while our brains cells may not be suffering death by drowning in stale alcohol, too much to drink for too long certainly isn’t healthy for our brains. As for drinking in moderation, there’s a bit of evidence both ways but a health professional would say “less is better”. However, I’m not a health professional and I’m pretty certain none of what I’ve said here is going to put a halt to drunken escapades at Mooseheads on a Thursday. So enjoy your next drink in the knowledge that you’re not ruthlessly murdering helpless little brain cells, even though the throb of a hangover headache might suggest otherwise.