Does Drinking 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, and 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—at least not directly. One study found no difference in the number of neocortical neurons between the brains of people who misuse alcohol and those who do not.

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

Studies involving rats found that halting alcohol intake—even after chronic abuse—allows the brain to heal itself.

Alcohol and Brain Damage

Although alcohol might not cause actual neural death, alcohol misuse can and does lead to brain damage. 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.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to various forms of alcohol dementia. Among them is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a serious neurological disorder linked to alcohol use that does result in the loss of brain neurons. The syndrome is characterized by memory problems, amnesia, and lack of muscle coordination. It's important to note that its relationship to alcohol misuse is indirect; the loss of neurons is caused by a deficiency in an important B vitamin called thiamine, which is common among those who misuse alcohol.

Neurogenesis Interference

Although alcohol might not actually "kill" brain cells, research does suggest that high levels of alcohol can interfere with neurogenesis (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.

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 influence how alcohol affects 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.

Brain Shrinkage

Even moderate alcohol consumption is associated with hppocampus damage—specifically, shrinkage. Remarkably, research indicates that abstinence from alcohol can reverse some of this atrophy.

What Is the Hippocampus?

The hippocampus plays a crucial part in learning and memory. Its complex, delicate structure is vulnerable to damage.

A Word From Verywell

Although alcohol doesn't directly kill brain cells, it inhibits the formation of new ones, can cause neurological disorders over time, impairs brain function, and has other serious health consequences. If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol misuse or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do brain cells regenerate?

    Research is ongoing, but recent studies indicate that the process of brain cell regeneration, neurogenesis, occurs throughout life. So far, this regrowth seems limited to the brain regions known as the hippocampus and amygdala, but we need more and broader research to determine the scope of neurogenesis and its implications for aging-related cognitive deficits such as Alzheimer's disease.

  • What is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome?

    Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a brain disease that's caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. Causes include alcohol misuse, poor diet, chemotherapy, and eating disorders. Signs and symptoms include confusion, poor eyesight, hypothermia, hypotension, and lack of coordination. People who misuse alcohol are prone to Korsakoff Syndrome, aka Korsakoff's Amnesic Syndrome or alcohol dementia, which causes memory problems.

  • Is red wine good for you?

    Whether red wine is good for you is still a topic of debate among researchers. An ingredient in red wine, resveratrol, was shown to be beneficial in studies with mice, but you'd have to drink gallons of wine to attain the same dose. Resveratrol supplements show no appreciable benefits in humans.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jensen GB, Pakkenberg B. Do alcoholics drink their neurons away? Lancet. 1993;342(8881):1201-1204. DOI:10.1016/0140-6736(93)92185-v

  2. Alcohol Disrupts the Communication Between Neurons. The Alcohol Pharmacology Education Partnership.

  3. Recovery of neurocognitive functions following sustained abstinence after substance dependence and implications for treatmentClinical Psychology Review. 2014;34(7):531-550. DOI:10.1016/j.cpr.2014.08.002

  4. Alcohol and the brain: An overview. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

  5. Topiwala A, Allan CL, Valkanova V, et al. Moderate alcohol consumption as risk factor for adverse brain outcomes and cognitive decline: Longitudinal cohort studyBMJ. 2017;357:j2353. doi:10.1136/bmj.j2353

  6. Progressive white matter atrophy with altered lipid profiles is partially reversed by short-term abstinence in an experimental model of alcohol-related neurodegenerationAlcohol. 2017;65:51-62. doi;10.5812/ijhrba.27976

  7. Anand KS, Dhikav V. Hippocampus in health and disease: An overviewAnn Indian Acad Neurol. 2012;15(4):239-246. doi:10.4103%2F0972-2327.104323

Additional Reading
  • 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.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.