Think about the last glass of wine, pint of beer, or shot of vodka you consumed. Do you know how those drinks affect your brain with every sip that passes your lips?

The brain is made up of many sections that communicate with each other very quickly through the use of nerve cells called neurons.

Let’s say Nerve Cell A has a message that it needs to convey to Nerve Cell B. Usually, instead of using words to send messages as we do in conversations, nerve cells send little chemicals called neurotransmitters across the space between them (called a synapse). The neurotransmitters then bind to receptors on the receiving nerve cell, similar to how a lock and key interacts, allowing the message to be captured by Nerve Cell B. In a normal conversation between two people, this is the moment that the person receiving the message actually hears the words coming from the person they’re in a conversation with.

How does alcohol interrupt this conversation between these nerve cells? Well, as alcohol finds its way to the synapses between the nerve cells, it acts like a rude stranger that pulls away the attention of Nerve Cell B, effectively blocking Nerve Cell A’s message from getting across the synapse to Nerve Cell B. Alcohol actually imitates the proper neurotransmitter (the way the message is sent across the space between the nerve cells) and binds to that neurotransmitter’s receptor, basically causing Nerve Cell B to receive the inappropriate message.

So what effects does the rude stranger, alcohol, have on conversations between nerve cells in the different parts of the brain? We’ll take a look at three types of neurotransmitters: GABA, glutamate, and endorphins. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter whose receptor activity is excited by alcohol, thereby causing more inhibition of brain function — specifically feelings of calmness or sleepiness. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter whose receptor activity is inhibited by alcohol, resulting in more inhibition of brain function and causing muscle relaxation, loss of coordination, staggering, slurred speech, disruption of memory, and even “blacking out.” Endorphin levels are raised by the presence of alcohol in the synapse between nerve cells, giving the drinker the feeling of being “high.”


The Teenage Brain on Alcohol

Alcohol continues to be the drug of choice among our youth. In Solano County, for example, about 35% of 11th graders reported having consumed alcohol and almost 22% of adolescents in the same grade reported engaging in binge-drinking of five or more drinks in a sitting (California Healthy Kids Survey 2008). This is particularly problematic because during adolescence, an enormous amount of structural and functional brain development occurs. If you impair the adolescent brain during these vital years, you risk permanent chemical alterations and possible brain damage.

Studies found that alcohol has detrimental effects on the teenage brain. Among them are impairment in the ability to learn and process new material, which is controlled by the hippocampus, which can end up smaller in comparison to a normal non-heavy-drinker’s brain.  The studies also point out that binge drinking can interfere with the development of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making, judgment, and impulse control.

Clearly, alcohol does not just lead to blurred vision, difficulty walking, and impaired memory; it can also create lasting effects  that can significantly affect the brain in the long run. Whether or not you’re 21 or over, think before you consume your next drink.

Kristine Lalic and Keirsha Baron are Project Assistants for Solano Coalition for Better Health.