13 February 2009

Alcohol and the brain

During a recent training event we got into a discussion on the effects of alcohol on our mental processes - which parts of the brain were affected and in what order?

It brought to mind cases of people who through brain damage have lost the use of the cerebral parts on their brain. While they cannot remember anything for more than a few seconds, they are still able to dress themselves, walk, eat and communicate. This is not entirely unlike a person who has too much to drink and cannot remember getting home, yet wakes up in bed wearing their pyjamas with the house securely locked.

It therefore strikes me that alcohol affects the cerebral brain first and the limbic brain second. In the case of the limbic system we do know that when people die from alcohol poisoning it is because the part of the brain responsible for consciousness and respiration closes down. The person therefore lapses into a coma, stops breathing and dies.

The early signs are possibly when the limbic systems priorities take over. These are often described as; fighting, fleeing, feeding and reproduction. Perhaps this is why people are more flirtatious in pubs, why arguments and fights are often fuelled by alcohol and why people have an urge to raid the fridge when they get back from the pub.

What do you think?


  1. I am not sure about the order the brain “shuts” down in when drinking alcohol, but it does make sense if it starts with the cerebral brain.

    In fact, some research from McGill University in Canada suggests that even after people think the effects have worn off, and they are getting their “thinking powers” back, the alcohol is actually still having a negative impact on certain functions such as planning and reasoning.

    The scary thing is that their performance in these areas was reduced even after the alcohol concentration in the blood had dipped to the point where people were no longer aware of its effect – and the effect on these cerebral functions appeared to be even more pronounced as the blood alcohol level declined from its peak.

    This certainly has an implication on activities such as driving or operating machinery – maybe when you least expect it, you may in fact be more vulnerable.

    A really good argument for “sleeping it off” and giving yourself a lot of time to get the alcohol out of your system – the headache pills may take away the pain of the pressure in the vessels of the brain, but they won’t accelerate the performance of your cerebral functions.


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