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The Connection Between Alcohol and Memory Changes

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Alcohol and memory are closely related. In fact, alcohol affects every part of the brain, and even moderate drinking can change the structure of the brain. The younger you start drinking, the more alcohol can alter your brain’s pathways. Alcohol-related brain damage can lead to neural impairments, such as memory loss and learning difficulties.1

How Alcohol Enters the Brain

Once consumed, alcohol travels through the digestive tract and is absorbed into the bloodstream before visiting the liver for processing. It then flows to the rest of the body, including the brain, which has a barrier that protects the brain from harmful substances— the blood-brain barrier. However, because of alcohol’s chemical characteristics, it is able to cross the blood-brain barrier extremely easily and enter the brain.2

How Alcohol Intoxicates the Brain

Neurons in the brain carry information through electrical impulses, which then become chemical impulses called neurotransmitters, where two neurons meet and bind at the synapse. When binding, new electrical impulses are created and sent into the next neuron. This communication is continuous unless something like alcohol interferes.2

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, meaning it causes sedation by inhibiting electrical impulses in two ways:2

  1. Increasing the number of negatively charged impulses (which depress neuron firing) that enter a neuron
  2. Decreasing the number of positively charged impulses (which increase neuron firing) that enter a neuron

Suppressing neural communication produces the effect of intoxication.

Alcohol and Short-Term Effects on the Brain

Alcohol slows down brain functioning, causing a chain reaction as you continue to drink. You may experience the following:3

  • Slowed movement
  • Slurred speech
  • Blurred vision
  • Impaired coordination
  • Impaired thinking
  • Memory failure
  • Changed mood
  • Impaired judgment
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate

If you drink too much alcohol too quickly, your body may react by vomiting. If you are taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, drinking alcohol may cause a dangerous interaction. Accidents and injuries can also happen due to alcohol’s effect on judgment and decision-making. When someone first starts drinking alcohol, they may feel euphoric and energetic. This does not last long, however. The more someone drinks, the more the brain becomes sedated, depressed, and traumatized.3

Another short-term effect on the brain are blackouts, which are due to memory loss of events that happened while intoxicated. You are still awake, but alcohol blocks the brain’s ability to transfer memories from short-term to long-term storage in the hippocampus. There are two types of blackouts: fragmentary and en bloc. A fragmentary blackout is when you can remember bits and pieces—but not all—of events; en bloc is complete amnesia, caused by memories never forming.4

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on Memory and Learning

Increasing alcohol intake by drinking more and for more extended periods has long-term effects on the psychological and physiological health of the brain. The short-term side effects turn into long-term side effects but become more severe. Continuous misuse of alcohol damages parts of your brain necessary for memory and learning.3


The hippocampus is in the temporal lobe of the brain and is responsible for storing and saving information. Alcohol can damage the hippocampus, making it difficult to remember and learn new information.5 Alcohol also interferes with the transfer of memories from short- to long-term storage in the brain.


The amygdala is responsible for regulating social behaviors and emotions. Alcohol dampens the neurotransmitters within the amygdala, causing dysfunction of sleep, emotions, and behavioral reactions. Also, alcohol makes it difficult to discern social cues, leading to socially inappropriate behaviors.6

Cerebral Cortex

The cerebral cortex, or gray matter, is the internal part of the whole brain. It consists of four lobes. The frontal lobe control emotions, decision-making, social behaviors, and movements.

The parietal lobe holds parts of the brain that aid learning, language, spatial recognition, and interpreting the senses.

The temporal lobe is responsible for all things related to memory, including recall and recognition, sound recognition, and visual perception.

Finally, the occipital lobe is responsible for visual processing and interpretation. Any of these functions can be impaired by alcohol misuse, interfering with your ability to function mentally and physically.9

The Reward System

Many neurotransmitters contribute to the development of alcohol dependence and alcohol use disorder, and dopamine, in particular, plays a major role. Commonly referred to as the “feel good” chemical of the brain, dopamine is released when you engage in rewarding, pro-survival activities, such as eating food and having sex, thus motivating you to engage in these behaviors in the future.10

Alcohol use triggers a rush of dopamine, which has a euphoric and rewarding effect, reinforcing repeated drinking episodes. Over time, drinking hijacks the reward system of your brain, creating a powerful connection between alcohol consumption, the pleasurable feelings, and the external cues related to drinking. Intense surges of dopamine essentially teach the brain to seek and consume alcohol in favor of other, healthier behaviors. This is because chronic alcohol use can dampen the ability to derive pleasure from natural rewards.10

Additionally, drinking-related cues, such as a bar, football game, holiday, or friends you typically drink with, have become linked with alcohol use because of the changes that have occurred in the brain’s reward system. These cues can cause powerful cravings whenever you are exposed to them, and unfortunately, this connection can last for many years, even once you’ve stopped drinking.10

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Alcohol-Induced Diseases

Alcohol’s effect on different parts of the brain can lead to severe but rare, irreversible diseases. Alcohol-induced diseases are neurodegenerative that involve a shrinking or breakdown in the brain’s structure that causes it to malfunction, affecting memory and learning.

Alcohol-Induced Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that destroys memory and interferes with your ability to function professionally, socially, and personally. It is a slow, progressive disease with no cure. It affects more than memory; over time it can impair the parts of the brain that control thinking and language.11

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a brain disorder caused by vitamin deficiencies, specifically thiamine—also referred to as vitamin B1. The thalamus and hypothalamus become damaged, leading to very troubling symptoms, such as the inability to control body temperature changes, movements, and vision. The syndrome can lead to amnesia, tremors, and coma.12

Hepatic Encephalopathy

Hepatic encephalopathy, which is an indirect consequence of severe liver disease, is a nervous system disorder that causes:

  • Cognitive impairment
  • Difficulty concentrating and staying focused
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Hand flapping
  • Mood changes
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Coordination problems.

This disorder is temporary and treatable with medications and supportive therapy.13

Who Experiences Memory and Learning Impairment Due to Alcohol Misuse?

Technically, anyone can experience memory and learning problems while drinking alcohol, even occasionally. You should consider many other factors that also play a role in your risk for memory and learning impairment due to alcohol.

Older Men and Women

As you age, cognition can decline simply due to age-related factors. If an older person has alcohol use disorder, that can compound the damage to their brain and increase learning and memory dysfunction. Alcohol misuse leads to malnourishment of brain cells, degeneration of the spinal cord and nervous system, neuroinflammation, and an acceleration of aging effects.14

Infants Born With Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

When a pregnant person misuses alcohol during pregnancy, the infant is at risk of being born with fetal alcohol syndrome. This means the child could struggle with a range of learning and memory problems and physical and behavioral obstacles as they grow. Those with fetal alcohol syndrome are said to have fewer functioning neurons in their brain.15


The human brain does not stop developing until adulthood. Therefore, adolescents who use alcohol and other substances may experience significant neuronal changes since their brains are still maturing.

Studies show adolescents who misuse alcohol have lower function of thinking and memory skills. Also, the earlier a person develops alcohol use disorder, the smaller their hippocampus. Research proves alcohol misuse has damaging effects on the adolescent brain and impairs a child’s cognitive skills.16

Besides a young age at onset of drinking, other factors may affect to what extent alcohol use impedes typical brain development, memory, and learning. These factors include:16

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Repairing Brain Damage from Alcohol Misuse

The brain can be repaired after you stop misusing alcohol.17

Neurons in the brain start to heal when you quit drinking. Because the brain has neuroplasticity while in an active AUD and in recovery,  you can learn new skills and behaviors, and with continued practice, or training, your brain will adapt and become used to functioning without alcohol.17

Repair doesn’t happen overnight and may never restore to its original function, but you can make improvements with the help of trained mental health and alcohol use disorder treatment professionals. They can teach you the specific skills necessary to improve cognitive—as well as behavioral—abilities.

You can start the road to cognitive healing today by calling us at 800-948-8417 Question iconCalls are forwarded to these paid advertisers . We are open 24/7 and can connect you with a treatment program with doctors and counselors eager to help you recover.


  1. Welch K. A. (2017). Alcohol Consumption and Brain Health. BMJ, 357, j2645.
  2. Duke University. (2016). Module 2: The ABCs of Intoxication. The Alcohol Pharmacology Education Partnership.
  3. S. National Library of Medicine. (2021). Alcohol. MedlinePlus.
  4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Interrupted Memories: Alcohol-Induced Blackouts.
  5. Fogwe LA, Reddy V, Mesfin FB. (2021). Neuroanatomy, Hippocampus.
  6. Roberto, M., Gilpin, N. W., & Siggins, G. R. (2012). The Central Amygdala and Alcohol: Role of Y-aminobutyric Acid, Glutamate, and Neuropeptides. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, 2(12),
  7. Rachdaoui, N., & Sarkar, D. K. (2017). Pathophysiology of the Effects of Alcohol Abuse on the Endocrine System. Alcohol Research Current Reviews, 38(2), 255-276.
  8. Ataullah AHM, Naqvi IA. (2021). Cerebellar Dysfunction.
  9. Jawabri KH, Sharma S. (2021). Physiology, Cerebral Cortex Functions.
  10. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction: Drugs and the Brain.
  11. Kamal, H., Tan, G. C., Ibrahim, S. F., Shaikh, M. F., Mohamed, I. N., Mohamed, R., Hamid, A. A., Ugusman, A., & Kumar, J. (2020). Alcohol Use Disorder, Neurodegeneration, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease: Interplay Between Oxidative Stress, Neuroimmune Response and Excitotoxicity. Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, 14, 282.
  12. S. National Library of Medicine. (2021). Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. MedlinePlus.
  13. Ferenci P. (2017). Hepatic Encephalopathy. Gastroenterology Report, 5(2), 138-147.
  14. Mende M. A. (2019). Alcohol in the Aging Brain – The Interplay Between Alcohol Consumption, Cognitive Decline and the Cardiovascular System. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 13, 713.
  15. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004). Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain.
  16. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Alcohol and the Adolescent Brain: Human Studies.
  17. Seo, D., & Sinha, R. (2015). Neuroplasticity and Predictors of Alcohol Recovery. Alcohol Research Current Reviews, 37(1), 143-152.
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