Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells? 

Several things have developed the myth that alcohol kills brain cells. This myth was largely developed during prohibition as a way to convince people to follow the laws and stop drinking. Research into the brain cells of alcoholics has also contributed to the myth that alcohol may kill off brain cells. In 1990, a study to this degree was conducted which revealed that alcoholics tended to have less brain cells than non-alcoholic. This got people thinking that alcohol must kill off brain cells.

Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

There have been several rumors throughout the years that have helped to develop the idea that it kills. Originally the myth also argued that alcohol in the blood could cause those who drank too frequently to catch fire, helping to promote the idea that people should not drink.

More recent scientific research has helped to demonstrate that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol can actually improve cognitive skills as well as memory. This is compared to those that completely abstain from alcohol. Moderate drinking will not hurt the brain cells, but will actually improve your mental health as you age.

Abusing alcohol, on the other hand, can cause neurological damage that can be quite serious. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a common side effect of excessive drinking. The message carrying dendrites on the neurons in the cerebellum are damaged by alcohol abuse. However, in spite of this strong evidence that alcohol causes damage to the nervous system, there is no evidence that alcohol will literally kill brain cells. In addition to this evidence, scientists have found that abstaining from alcohol after this damage has occurred will give the nervous system time to repair itself.

Studies simulated drinking binges in rates to help determine their ability to generate new brain cells. These studies found that while they were on the binge, rats had a reduced ability to repair and maintain this tissue, but after the binge had ended they had a large burst of activity, developing many new brain cells. This solidified the belief that the brain cells impacted by alcohol were not killed, just severely damaged. Humans have not yet been studied directly to determine how these effects work on our nervous systems.

How Much Alcohol Is Safe?

After knowing does alcohol kill brain cells and know the answer is that moderate drinking can be tolerated, you should know the safe limit. According to Mayo Clinic,

For healthy adults, up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men older than age 65, and up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger.

Examples of one drink include:

  • Beer: 12 fluid ounces (355 milliliters)
  • Wine: 5 fluid ounces (148 milliliters)
  • Distilled spirits (80 proof): 1.5 fluid ounces (44 milliliters)

How Does Alcohol Impact the Brain?

  • Mental health problems- Alcohol has regularly been linked to mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Serious mental health problems like psychosis can also be caused by high levels of drinking. Extreme alcohol consumption is typically defined as 30 units a day for several weeks at a time. Those that suffer from mental health disorders may have trouble stopping their alcohol use as they will be at a higher risk of developing withdrawal symptoms such as nervousness, anxiety, palpitations and tremors.
  • Brain damage- Alcohol has dehydrating properties that can cause damage to the body. If this dehydrating becomes severe it can cause permanent damage in the brain, a condition commonly known as alcohol poisoning. This damage to the brain can lead to a variety of disorders including dementia and Wernicke-Krosakoff syndrome.
  • Risk of dementia- People who binge drink have a much higher risk of developing dementia. Recent studies have indicated that the presence of the apolipoprotein e4 allele makes those that consume alcohol at heavy amounts will be more likely to develop dementia as a result.
  • Wernike-korsakoff syndrome- Wernike-korsakoff syndrome is a deficiency in thiamine or vitamin B1, which is common in up to 80 percent of alcoholics. Consuming large amounts of alcohol over a long period of time can damage the body's ability to absorb thiamine properly. People suffering from Wernike-korsakoff syndrome may begin to experience disturbances in their eye movement, mental confusion and abnormal gait. If this condition is left untreated it can develop into psychosis and dementia.