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How Does Alcohol Change the Brain?

How Does Alcohol Change the Brain?

What happens when alcohol enters the system and changes the brain makes a huge difference in how a person responds. Primarily, it is a depressant. Alcohol is also an indirect stimulant, and plays a few other roles. The brain chemistry of a person who is drinking shifts neurotransmitter levels, the chemical messengers that transmit signals throughout the body controlling thought processes, behavior, and emotion. Learn more about how this happens and the ways it impacts the brain and body.


An example of an excitatory neurotransmitter is glutamate, which would normally increase brain activity and energy levels. Alcohol suppresses the release of glutamate, resulting in a slowdown along the brain’s highways. An inhibitory neurotransmitter (GABA) reduces energy levels and calms everything down. Drugs like Xanax and Valium increase GABA production in the brain, resulting in feeling sedated. Alcohol does the same thing by increase the effects of GABA.


Alcohol increases the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward center. The reward center is the same combination of brain areas that are affected by virtually all pleasurable activity, including hanging out with friends, getting a bonus at work, or using substances. By increasing dopamine in the brain, alcohol tricks you into thinking it is actually making you feel great. The effect is that you keep drinking to get more dopamine release, but at the same time altering other brain chemicals that enhance feelings of depression.

Why Inhibition Happens

Alcohol decreases people’s inhibitions so they are more likely to do things they might not otherwise do. This is the result of changes in the brain from drinking, including:

  • Cerebral cortex: thought processing and consciousness is centered here and alcohol depresses the behavioral inhibitory centers. The processing of information slows down from the eyes, ears, mouth, and other senses.
  • Cerebellum: alcohol effects the center of movement and balance, resulting in ‘off-balance’ swagger which is associated with ‘falling down drunk.’
  • Hypothalamus and pituitary: coordinates automatic brain functions and hormone release. Alcohol depresses nerve centers in the hypothalamus that controls sexual arousal and performance. Sexual urges may increase, but sexual performance decreases.
  • Medulla: This area of the brain handles automatic functions like breathing, consciousness, and body temperature. Acting on this, alcohol induces sleepiness while also maybe lowering breathing and lowering body temperature, which may be life threatening.

The brain changes a lot when drinking, some of those changes possibly permanent if you don’t seek help right away for addiction to alcohol. If you are struggling to quit drinking, Serenity has a place for you at our rehab center. Call us 24/7 at our toll-free number: 866-294-9401