Alcoholism and Its Effect on the Brain and Behaviour

Drunk bizarre sailor with bottle and cigarette

Many years ago, I was caught, abruptly to a man of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a proposal in marriage. Although the incident happened very briefly, for me it painted a vivid picture that I can still remember until now.

I was hopping off a bus from university to suburban Clayton, when a guy in black jacket came up to me and said “honey, will you marry me tonight?”. I was caught off guard, and didn’t know how to respond until the smell of alcohol came into picture. “Ah, he’s drunk, I thought to myself”, and quickly scurried away. My heart was beating fast and it traumatized me, thinking that he could’ve snatched my arms or cause any other injuries and the fact that it’s already getting dark.

What was the feeling I had then? I felt UNSAFE. I almost regretted my decision to take the bus that night. I should’ve stayed indoors. Then came post examination week and everyone was excited to have parties. I was told by friends, to not come out of the room after midnight because ‘partying people’ are everywhere.

Well, true enough as the night becomes longer, the music and laughter become louder. Of course I didn’t feel safe to be outside.

The next morning, as I was taking my basket of laundry to the laundry room, the smell of beer and pukes were everywhere. I felt sorry for the cleaners who had to handle all those mess left by the party goers. So, every time alcohol comes to my mind, these issues are always pertinent.

Let’s take a peek into countries, where alcohol is a social norm. Imagine looking into a window of our unseen future. In these countries, drinking alcohol has become an established social event, starting as early as university level. New students were always shown where the local pub was.

In the US, alcohol use contributes to about 88,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While many alcohol-related deaths result from motor vehicle accidents, other causes include falls, drownings, homicide, suicide, burns and violence.

Alcohol and Brain Function

Multiple studies have found a link between excessive alcohol use and damaged brain function. Even in the short term, alcohol affects areas of the brain controlling cognitive and motor functions, impairs memory and judgment and disrupts sleep patterns. The cerebral cortex is where information is processed and judgement formulated. Alcohol depresses this function, slowing the input of sensory information and clouding the thought process.

The cerebellum which is the center of movement, coordination, equilibrium, and balance can also be impaired, affecting balance and gait. The medulla which controls automatic functions as breathing, consciousness, and body temperature can be depressed by alcohol, causing sleepiness, slowing breathing, lowering body temperature, and possibly coma.

The Role of Dopamine

The brain contains neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that transmit signals between brain cells and send information throughout the body. Dopamine is one of those chemical messengers and is strongly impacted by the presence of alcohol. Centered in the motivation, pleasure, and reward center of the brain, dopamine levels influence the mood.

Alcohol and other addictive substances trigger a much higher increase in dopamine levels, causing an even more intense desire to repeat the behavior. As alcohol use continues, the brain adjusts to the high levels of dopamine present and begins to produce less dopamine naturally. As natural dopamine levels drop, the brain demands a greater amount of alcohol to keep dopamine production artificially high. This pattern is called tolerance, which means the body has become dependent on alcohol.

At this point, if an individual stops consuming alcohol, they will experience withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol and Human Behaviour

According to a paper published in the journal Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, MRI scans of drunk and sober men show that alcohol-related changes in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain thought to be responsible for moderating social behavior and aggression, among other executive functions, may be responsible for induced anger.

In other words, the researchers believe that alcohol’s dampening effects on the prefrontal cortex could make intoxicated people more biased toward hostile cues and less wary of social etiquette, resulting in more aggressive behavior.

Therefore, in socially acceptable communities, alcohol has shown that it can cause changes in the brain, implicating dangerous and risk taking behaviour towards the intoxicated person as well as others around them. It is a vicious cycle turning a dwarf into a giant each time.

Thus, Malaysians being far away from this social condition should make a wise decision regarding the selling and consumption of alcohol. Lack of appropriate steps will take our country into the down slope of events mentioned above. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Hence, the laws related to the sale and consumption of alcohol should be further strengthened to curb the incidents that occur in the west from spreading into our country. For example, a ban on drinking alcohol in public places can be implemented to reduce the risk of harassment to the public. The recent restriction on beer sales and the ban of liquor sales at sundry shops, convenience stores, and Chinese medicine shops by Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) are also initiatives that are worth emulating.







by: Dr Nur Farrah Nadia bt Najib
I-Medik Johor Bahru Activist