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Alcohol and the Short Term Impact on the Brain

Dr Oliver Finlay



KEY POINTS


· Alcohol easily passes through the blood brain barrier and interacts with neurotransmitters, affecting brain function.


· Alcohol interacts with GABA, glutamate, dopamine, and serotonin, affecting their impact on the brain.


· Alcohol consumption has been shown to impact the structure of the hippocampus in the short-term.


· Alcohol consumption has been shown to impact the function of the frontal cortex in the short term, impacting executive functioning and emotional behaviour.


· Metabolism of alcohol in the liver produces acetaldehyde, which is a toxic compound that can lead to inflammation and cellular damage in the brain.



Alcohol is one of the most commonly consumed psychoactive substances worldwide. While moderate alcohol consumption may have some beneficial effects, excessive or binge drinking can lead to various short-term and long-term consequences for the brain.


This essay aims to explore the physical and physiological pathways through which alcohol impacts the structure and function of the brain in the short term.


1. The Blood-Brain Barrier and Neurotransmission


The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is a protective barrier that separates the bloodstream from the brain tissue, ensuring that only essential nutrients and molecules can enter the brain. However, alcohol can easily pass through this barrier, entering the brain and affecting its functioning. Inside the brain, alcohol primarily interacts with neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers responsible for communication between nerve cells (neurons).



2. Neurotransmitter Systems Affected by Alcohol


Gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) system: GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that reduces neuronal activity, promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety. Alcohol enhances GABA's inhibitory effects, which is why individuals may experience a sense of calmness and euphoria after consuming alcohol. This decrease in anxiety and consequent feeling of relaxation may explain why some people may turn to alcohol to cope with stress or social anxiety in social situations.


Glutamate system: On the other hand, alcohol suppresses the glutamate system, an excitatory neurotransmitter that promotes brain activity. By inhibiting glutamate, alcohol slows down brain functions, leading to impaired cognitive abilities, reduced coordination, and slowed reflexes.


Dopamine system: One of the primary mechanisms through which alcohol affects mood is by interacting with the brain's reward pathway. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, plays a crucial role in regulating feelings of pleasure and reward. When we engage in pleasurable activities, such as eating delicious food or spending time with loved ones, the brain releases dopamine, making us feel good.


Alcohol triggers the release of dopamine in the brain's reward pathway, resulting in pleasurable sensations and a sense of well-being. This surge in dopamine levels is responsible for the initial feelings of euphoria and relaxation commonly experienced after consuming alcohol.


Serotonin system: Serotonin is another important neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood. Low serotonin levels are associated with feelings of depression and anxiety. While alcohol initially increases serotonin levels, leading to improved mood, its overall impact on serotonin is complex. Over time, chronic alcohol use can disrupt serotonin regulation, potentially contributing to mood disorders and symptoms of depression.



3. Short-Term Effects on Brain Structure


Neuroimaging studies have shown that even short-term alcohol consumption can cause alterations in brain structure. In particular, the hippocampus, a crucial region for memory and learning, is particularly vulnerable to alcohol's effects. Research by Wetherill et al. (2013) found that heavy episodic drinking in young adults was associated with reduced hippocampal volume, potentially affecting memory consolidation and retrieval.


Dehydration can impact mood by causing fatigue, irritability, and even headaches. These mood fluctuations may be intensified when alcohol is consumed in excess, leading to a temporary "hangover" effect characterised by low mood and physical discomfort. Whilst this oedema is usually reversible, it highlights the immediate impact alcohol can have on brain structure.



4. Short-Term Effects on Brain Function


In the short term, alcohol consumption can significantly impair cognitive function and psychomotor skills. Studies by Marinkovic et al. (2012) have demonstrated that even moderate alcohol consumption disrupts brain networks responsible for executive functions, attention, and working memory.


The brain's frontal cortex, responsible for decision-making, impulse control and emotional regulation, is particularly sensitive to alcohol's effects. Studies have shown that acute alcohol consumption can impair frontal cortex function, leading to reduced impulse control and emotional instability. This may result in exaggerated emotions, unpredictable mood swings and can lead to risky behaviours and poor judgment. This effect explains why alcohol-related accidents and injuries are more prevalent after consumption.



5. The Role of Acetaldehyde


When alcohol is metabolised in the liver, it produces acetaldehyde, a toxic compound that can further damage brain cells. Acetaldehyde has been shown to generate reactive oxygen species (ROS), leading to oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. This oxidative stress can contribute to cellular damage and may play a role in the development of alcohol-related brain disorders.



Conclusion


In conclusion, the short-term impact of alcohol on the brain is a result of its interaction with neurotransmitter systems, alteration of brain structure, and impairment of brain function. Alcohol influences mood by triggering the release of dopamine in the brain's reward pathway, leading to feelings of pleasure and relaxation. It also enhances the effects of GABA, reducing anxiety and promoting a sense of calmness. However, the long-term effects of alcohol on mood can be more complex, with chronic use potentially contributing to mood disorders.


Additionally, even short-term alcohol consumption can cause changes in brain structure, particularly affecting memory-related regions like the hippocampus. The cognitive and psychomotor impairments resulting from alcohol consumption can lead to risky behaviours and accidents. Excessive consumption can have negative consequences on mental health and brain function. Responsible and moderate alcohol consumption is crucial to safeguarding both our physical and mental well-being.




References and Evaluation of Scientific Power


Koob, G.F. and Volkow, N.D., 2016. Neurobiology of addiction: a neurocircuitry analysis. The Lancet Psychiatry, 3(8), pp.760-773.


OVERVIEW: The article explores the neurobiological basis of addiction. Addiction is a complex condition that involves compulsive drug-seeking behaviour despite adverse consequences. The authors delve into the brain's neurocircuitry and neurotransmitter systems to understand how addictive substances affect the brain and lead to addiction.

STRENGTHS: The article provides a comprehensive analysis of the neurocircuitry involved in addiction. It offers valuable insights into the roles of key brain regions, such as the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus, in addiction development. Additionally, the review highlights the importance of neurotransmitters like dopamine, glutamate, and GABA in the addictive process. The information is well-organized and easy to follow, making it accessible for readers new to the topic.

LIMITATIONS: While the article is informative, it may lack in-depth discussions on specific genetic and environmental factors that contribute to addiction. Additionally, the review focuses primarily on the neurobiological aspects, and other factors influencing addiction, such as social and psychological components, are not extensively explored. As a result, the review may not provide a complete picture of addiction's complexity.

CONCLUSION: The article presents a detailed examination of the brain's role in addiction. It offers essential insights into the neural pathways and neurotransmitters involved in addictive behaviours. However, it should be complemented with information from other sources to gain a comprehensive understanding of addiction's multifaceted nature.

SCIENTIFIC POWER: MODERATE to STRONG - The authors are reputable neuroscientists with extensive expertise in addiction research, enhancing the credibility of their findings. The review is published in The Lancet Psychiatry, a well-respected peer-reviewed journal, ensuring a rigorous evaluation process. Moreover, the article cites numerous references from scientific literature, which supports its evidence-based analysis. However, the review focuses on a specific aspect of addiction (neurocircuitry), limiting its overall scope and applicability. For a more comprehensive understanding of addiction, it is essential to consult additional sources covering broader aspects of addiction research.



Lovinger, D.M., 1997. Serotonin’s role in alcohol’s effects on the brain. Alcohol Health and Research World, 21(2), p.114.


OVERVIEW: The article explores the influence of serotonin on the brain's response to alcohol. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in regulating mood and emotions. Understanding its role in alcohol's effects on the brain can provide valuable insights into the mechanisms of alcohol-related behaviours and addiction.

STRENGTHS: The article provides a clear and concise overview of serotonin's significance in alcohol's impact on the brain. It highlights the interactions between serotonin and other neurotransmitter systems, such as GABA and glutamate, in the brain. The review also explains how alcohol influences serotonin levels, affecting mood and behaviour.

LIMITATIONS: Despite its informative content, the article may lack a more in-depth discussion of recent advancements in serotonin research related to alcohol. Since the article was published in 1997, some newer findings may not be included. Additionally, the review primarily focuses on the role of serotonin and may not explore other neurotransmitter systems' contributions to alcohol's effects comprehensively.

CONCLUSION: The article provides a valuable introduction to the interaction between serotonin and alcohol in the brain. It explains how serotonin influences mood and how alcohol can impact serotonin levels, affecting behaviour. However, it may benefit from incorporating more recent research to present a more up-to-date perspective.

SCIENTIFIC POWER: MODERATE - The article is published in a reputable journal, Alcohol Health and Research World, ensuring a rigorous peer-review process. However, the limitation lies in its publication date, as more recent studies and advancements in the field may not be included. As a result, while the article provides a solid foundation on the topic, students should also consider consulting more recent sources for a comprehensive understanding of serotonin's role in alcohol's effects on the brain.



Marinkovic, K., Rickenbacher, E., Azma, S. and Artsy, E., 2012. Acute alcohol intoxication impairs top–down regulation of Stroop incongruity as revealed by blood oxygen level‐dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging. Human Brain Mapping, 33(2), pp.319-333.


OVERVIEW: The article investigates the effects of acute alcohol intoxication on the brain's ability to regulate cognitive tasks. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study brain activity during a Stroop task, which measures the ability to inhibit automatic responses. Understanding how alcohol affects cognitive regulation can provide insights into the impairments caused by alcohol intoxication.

STRENGTHS: The article presents a well-designed study using fMRI, a powerful neuroimaging technique that allows researchers to observe brain activity in real-time. The Stroop task is a well-established cognitive test that helps assess executive functions, such as attention and inhibition. The study's results provide valuable evidence of how acute alcohol intoxication affects the brain's ability to regulate cognitive tasks, which can be of great interest in understanding alcohol's impact on cognitive functioning.

LIMITATIONS: The study's limitation lies in its focus on acute alcohol intoxication, which may not fully represent the long-term effects of alcohol use on cognitive regulation. Additionally, the sample size in the study might be relatively small, which can limit the generalisability of the findings to a broader population. Moreover, the article does not discuss potential confounding factors, such as participants' prior alcohol use history or their individual alcohol sensitivity, which could influence the results.

CONCLUSION: The study sheds light on how alcohol intoxication affects cognitive regulation. The use of fMRI and the Stroop task provides a robust method for investigating brain activity during alcohol intoxication. However, it is essential to consider the limitations of the study and its focus on acute intoxication when interpreting the results.

SCIENTIFIC POWER: MODERATE - The study's use of fMRI is a strong point, providing real-time insights into brain activity during alcohol intoxication. The article is published in a reputable journal, Human Brain Mapping, indicating a rigorous peer-review process. However, the limitation lies in the study's focus on acute alcohol intoxication, which may not fully capture the long-term effects of alcohol on cognitive regulation. Additionally, the relatively small sample size and lack of discussion on potential confounding factors may limit the study's generalisability. Despite these limitations, the research contributes valuable findings to the understanding of alcohol's impact on cognitive functions. For a more comprehensive understanding of alcohol's effects on cognition, other studies that explore both acute and chronic alcohol use should be considered.



Nestler, E.J., 2022. Cellular basis of memory for addiction. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience.


OVERVIEW: The article delves into the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the formation and persistence of addiction-related memories. Understanding how addiction memories are formed in the brain can provide critical insights into the processes that contribute to addiction and potential avenues for intervention.

STRENGTHS: The article provides a comprehensive overview of the cellular and molecular mechanisms involved in addiction-related memory formation. It highlights the role of various brain regions and neurotransmitter systems, such as the mesolimbic dopamine system, in the encoding and retrieval of addiction memories.

LIMITATIONS: The article focuses on the cellular basis of memory for addiction, potentially overlooking other factors that contribute to addiction development, such as genetic and environmental influences.

CONCLUSION: The paper offers a valuable exploration of the neurobiological mechanisms underlying addiction-related memory formation. The review provides essential insights into how addictive substances affect brain function and contribute to the persistence of addiction. However, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of addiction, additional sources that cover the genetic, environmental, and behavioural aspects of addiction should also be considered.

SCIENTIFIC POWER: MODERATE - The article is published in a respected peer-reviewed journal, indicating a thorough review process. However, as a review article, it may not contain original research findings. Additionally, the focus on the cellular basis of memory for addiction might limit the overall scope of the article. To gain a broader understanding of addiction, this article should be considered with other sources that explore the various aspects of addiction and its impact on the brain and behaviour.



Nutt, D.J., King, L.A. and Phillips, L.D., 2010. Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis. The Lancet, 376(9752), pp.1558-1565.


OVERVIEW: The article investigates and compares the harms associated with various drugs in the UK. The researchers used a multicriteria decision analysis approach to assess the overall impact of drugs on individuals and society, taking into account factors like physical harm, dependence, and social consequences. Understanding drug harms can inform drug policies and public health interventions.

STRENGTHS: The article presents a rigorous and systematic assessment of drug harms, using a multicriteria decision analysis approach. This method allows the researchers to consider multiple factors when comparing the harms of different drugs, providing a comprehensive evaluation. The study's results are based on a thorough review of existing literature and data, enhancing the reliability of the findings. The language used in the article is accessible, making it suitable for undergraduate students interested in drug-related research.

LIMITATIONS: As with any analysis, there may be limitations in the data available or the criteria used to assess drug harms. Additionally, the study focuses on the UK, and the findings may not fully represent drug harms in other countries with different drug policies and usage patterns. Furthermore, the article may not include the most recent data on drug harms, as the publication date is in 2010.

CONCLUSION: The article provides valuable insights into the relative harms of different drugs in the UK. The use of a multicriteria decision analysis approach allows for a comprehensive assessment, considering various factors that contribute to drug harm. However, it is essential to consider the limitations of the study and its focus on the UK when interpreting the results.

SCIENTIFIC POWER: MODERATE to STRONG - The multicriteria decision analysis approach adds strength to the study's methodology. However, the limitation lies in the potential constraints of available data and the focus on drug harms in the UK.



Wetherill, R.R., Squeglia, L.M., Yang, T.T. and Tapert, S.F., 2013. A longitudinal examination of adolescent response inhibition: neural differences before and after the initiation of heavy drinking. Psychopharmacology, 230, pp.663-671.


OVERVIEW: The article investigates the impact of heavy drinking on response inhibition in adolescents. The study uses brain imaging techniques to observe changes in neural activity associated with response inhibition before and after the initiation of heavy drinking. Response inhibition is a crucial cognitive skill that helps individuals control impulsive behaviours.

STRENGTHS: The article presents a longitudinal study design, which means that the researchers followed the participants over time, providing more robust evidence on the effects of heavy drinking on response inhibition. Brain imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), were used to observe neural differences, adding depth to the findings. The study focuses on adolescents, an important age group to study given the vulnerability to the effects of alcohol on the developing brain. The language used in the article is accessible, making it suitable for undergraduate students interested in neuroscience and substance use research.

LIMITATIONS: As with any longitudinal study, there may be challenges in participant retention and potential confounding factors that could influence the results over time. The study's focus on response inhibition and heavy drinking may not fully capture the broader effects of alcohol use on other cognitive functions or brain regions. Additionally, the article may not cover the most recent advancements in brain imaging technology, as the publication date is in 2013.

CONCLUSION: The article offers valuable insights into the effects of heavy drinking on response inhibition in adolescents. The use of brain imaging techniques and a longitudinal design enhances the study's credibility and provides a more comprehensive understanding of the neural differences associated with alcohol use.

SCIENTIFIC POWER: MODERATE to STRONG - The use of brain imaging techniques and the longitudinal design adds strength to the study's methodology. However, the limitations lie in the potential challenges in participant retention and the focus on response inhibition in adolescents, which may not fully represent the effects of heavy drinking on other cognitive functions. To gain a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of heavy drinking on the adolescent brain, additional sources that explore broader aspects of alcohol's effects on cognition and brain development should also be reviewed.



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