The Effects of Alcohol on Brain Function

  • 1st Revision: Noor Al- Tameemi
  • 2nd Revision: Keri Wilkie
  • 3rd Revision: Sophia Bradshaw

Based on an article titled “Meta analysis of grey matter changes and their behavioral characterization in patients with alcohol use disorder”

Originally written by Splinder et al., 20211

By Murielle Nsiela 

Alcohol consumption is a significant concern for many. Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to alcohol abuse or what is known as alcohol use disorder (AUD) which has several health implications. With its high prevalence worldwide, AUD is linked to serious health burdens and an increasing death rate.2

This alcohol disorder can affect everyday life activities, such as not meeting specific requirements at work and increased risks of injury from road accidents. In addition, it also has adverse effects on social and family life; one may become aggressive towards family members or neglect certain relationships.3 

AUD is characterised by multiple cognitive and emotional processes that play a crucial role in development, relapse and maintenance of the disease.4 Continuous heavy alcohol consumption can lead to long-term functional changes such as the inability to remember locations,5 reason appropriately, regulate emotion, planning, and self-control.6 Furthermore, the lack of emotional control could explain the increased death levels of individuals with AUD and depressive disorders.7

These functional impairments caused by AUD are due to the changes that occur in grey matter structure as a result of the toxicity that occurs to the nervous system from heavy alcohol consumption.8 Grey matter is an essential component of the central nervous system found in the brain and several other structures in the body. In addition, several studies have indicated that individuals with AUD have a reduction in grey matter volume when compared to a healthy group analysed.9 

This reduction in grey matter is due to some areas in the brain where high-level functioning occurs, and where emotions are controlled, are altered by alcohol consumption. Furthermore, it is suggested that this reduction is associated with changes in memory, language, attention, reasoning, and music cognition. In addition, the reduction of cognitive function resulting from alcohol consumption can lead to habitual behaviours, which can result in fast relapse to old consumption patterns for patients with AUD.8,1  

In conclusion, the paper highlights the harmful effects of alcohol on the brain. It shows that a high alcohol intake is linked with reduced grey matter volume in some regions of the brain. Furthermore, it is indicated that excessive amounts of alcohol can lead to impairments in attentional, emotional, perceptive and cognitive functions. 


  1. Spindler C, Trautmann S, Alexander N, Bröning S, Bartscher S, Stuppe M et al. Meta-analysis of grey matter changes and their behavioral characterization in patients with alcohol use disorder. Scientific Reports. 2021;11:5238.
  2. Grant BF, Goldstein RB, Saha TD, Chou SP, Jung J, Zhang H, et al. Epidemiology of DSM-5 Alcohol Use Disorder: Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions III. JAMA Psychiatry 2015;72:757–66.
  3. Rehm, J. The risks associated with alcohol use and alcoholism. Alcohol Res. Heal 2011; 34, 135–143.
  4. Stacy AW, Wiers RW. Implicit Cognition and Addiction: A Tool for Explaining Paradoxical Behavior. Annu Rev Clin Psychol 2010;6:551–75.
  5. Ratti MT, Bo P, Giardini A, Soragna D. Chronic alcoholism and the frontal lobe: which executive functions are imparied? Acta Neurol Scand 2002;105:276–81.
  6. Wilcox CE, Dekonenko CJ, Mayer AR, Bogenschutz MP, Turner JA. Cognitive control in alcohol use disorder: deficits and clinical relevance. Reviews in the Neurosciences 2014;25:1–24.
  7. Ehlers CL, Gilder DA, Gizer IR, Wilhelmsen KC. Indexing the “dark side of addiction”: substance-induced affective symptoms and alcohol use disorders. Addiction 2019;114:139–49.
  8. Brust JCM. Ethanol and Cognition: Indirect Effects, Neurotoxicity and Neuroprotection: A Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2010;7:1540–57.
  9. Grodin EN, Lin H, Durkee CA, Hommer DW, Momenan R. Deficits in cortical, diencephalic and midbrain gray matter in alcoholism measured by VBM: Effects of co-morbid substance abuse. NeuroImage: Clinical 2013;2:469–76.
  10. Galandra C, Basso G, Cappa S, Canessa N. The alcoholic brain: neural bases of impaired reward-based decision-making in alcohol use disorders. Neurol Sci 2018;39:423–35.
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Murielle Nsiela

MSc Graduate in Medical Engineering - Bachelor's degree, Pharmaceutical Science, Keele University, Staffordshire UK

MSc in Medical Engineering Design, Keele University Modules included: Advanced engineering applications, Engineering for medical applications report, Bioreactors and Growth environment, Creative engineering design, Experimental research methodology and research projects

BSc (Hons) Pharmaceutical Science, Technology and Business, Keele University Modules included: Core topics in pharmaceutical science, Laboratory studies - tabletting and liposomes report, applied Pharmaceutical Science 2, Pharmaceutical research project

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