• Question: What happens to somebody's brain when they get drunk and why do they do stupid things?

    Asked by geenasaurusrex to Adam, Faye, Martin, Samantha, Yue, Kate, Mark U, Tess on 26 May 2012. This question was also asked by els4448, sara2012.
    • Photo: Faye Didymus

      Faye Didymus answered on 26 May 2012:

      Hi geenasaurusrex! Alcohol can affect several parts of the brain, but in general, alcohol contracts brain tissue and depresses the central nervous system. In a nutshell, when alcohol reaches the brain, it interferes with communication between nerve cells, by interacting with the receptors on some of your brain cells. The alcohol suppresses excitatory nerve pathway activity and increases inhibitory nerve pathway activity. It also enhances the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, which has the effect of making a person feel sluggish.

      To understand how alcohol interferes with brain function, it is necessary to know a little bit about normal brain function. The brain is the control center of the body – it controls all of the systems in your body including your muscular system, your respiratory system, and your digestive system. Your brain controls these fucntions by using a series of chemical, electrical, and physical signals from one cell to another cell. Within the cell, electrical signals are used but between cells, chemical signals are used – these chemical signals are called neurotransmitters.

      The gap between cells where neurotransmitters are active is called the synapse. The expelled neurotransmitter travels across the synapse and binds to a protein on the receiving cell membrane called a receptor, which is specific for that neurotransmitter. This action causes some change in the receiving cell, either chemical, electrical or physical, which can excite or inhibit the receiving cell to perform an action. When alcohol is introduced to the synapse, the normal neurotransmission may be affected. This may affect the way we think, remember, and behave.

      At really high concentrations, like the nearly 100% pure alcohol used in sterilizing solutions, alcohol can kill brain cells and neurons (and nearly anything else). But given that the blood reaching your brain is only at 0.08 percent alcohol if you’re within the legal limit for driving, the alcohol doesn’t do the brain cells too much damage (liver cells and other organs, with long-term chronic abuse, are another matter). However, excessive drinking over a prolonged period of time can cause problems with cognition (thinking) and memory. So, if you choose to take alcohol, it’s best to stick to the recommended intake if/when you’re old enough!