Does Drinking Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

woman and friends drinking beer

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The idea that having a few too many drinks permanently kills off brain cells has been around for some time. Chronic heavy drinking has long been associated with mental deficits. Alcohol exposure during critical periods of brain development, such as prenatally or during the teenage years, is also particularly dangerous. But is having that glass of wine after dinner really putting you at risk for neural loss?

What Studies Show

Experts believe that drinking does not actually lead to brain cell death. In fact, researchers have found that moderate drinking can have a number of health benefits, including improved cognitive abilities and lowered cholesterol levels.

One study that involved comparing the number of neurons found in the brains of alcoholics and non-alcoholics found that there was no difference in neocortical neurons between the two groups.

Even heavy binge drinking and long-term alcohol abuse don't actually result in the death of brain cells. Instead, alcohol damages the dendrites located in the cerebellum and reduces the communication between neurons. Researchers discovered that alcohol use not only disrupts communication between neurons; it can also alter their structure. One thing it does not do, they found, is kill off cells.

In fact, studies involving rats found that halting alcohol intake—even after chronic abuse—allows the brain to heal itself.

Alcohol and Brain Damage

While actual neural death might not be caused by alcohol, alcohol abuse can and does lead to brain damage. Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to a deficiency in an important B-vitamin called thiamine. This deficiency can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a serious neurological disorder linked to alcohol use that does result in the loss of neurons in the brain. The syndrome is characterized by memory problems, amnesia, and lack of muscle coordination. In this case, it is important to note that the loss of neurons is caused by the thiamine deficiency, not by the actual alcohol use.

Obviously, this does not mean that people should ignore the potential dangers of alcohol. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes that a number of factors can influence exactly how alcohol impacts the brain, including how much and how often a person drinks, how long the individual has been drinking, prenatal exposure to alcohol, and the overall state of a person's health.

Something else to consider: While alcohol might not actually "kill" brain cells, research does suggest that high levels of alcohol can interfere with neurogenesis or the formation of new brain cells. Until fairly recently, many experts believed that adults were not able to grow new neurons in the brain. That myth has since been dispelled, and brain experts now recognize that specific regions of the brain continue to form new cells even well into old age.

Bottom Line

Researchers believe that alcohol does not kill brain cells. It can, however, impair brain function and have other serious health consequences.

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  • Bates, M. E., and Tracy, J. I. (1990). Cognitive Functioning in Young "Social Drinkers": Is There Impairment to Detect? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 99, 242-249.

  • Jensen, G. B., & Pakkenberg, B. (1993). Do Alcoholics Drink Their Neurons Away? The Lancet, 342(8881), 1201-1204.

  • National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004). Alcohol's Damaging Effects on the Brain. Alcohol Alert, 63.

  • Nixon, K. and Crews, F. (2004). Temporally Specific Burst in Cell Proliferation Increases Hippocampal Neurogenesis in Protracted Abstinence From Alcohol. The Journal of Neuroscience, 24(43), 9714-9722.