No two people will experience exactly the same effect from drinking alcohol, but you’ll usually feel its effect on your brain within minutes. As it passes into your brain, ethanol interacts with the chemicals and pathways that determine your emotions and moods, how you respond to pleasure and pain, and regulate your coordination, movement and even your breathing (2).
Alcohol can make you less inhibited and more relaxed when you drink moderately. However, the more you drink, the more alcohol acts as a depressant. If you drink very heavily in a short amount of time, you may risk passing out. People who become very severely intoxicated can fall into a coma and stop breathing (3). All of these responses involve various regions in your brain.
Research has shown that heavy and abusive drinking over long periods can change the brain’s structure (4). Unlike some other organs, the brain doesn’t regenerate so any damage is irreversible. This is also one reason why drinking at an early age is so dangerous. As adolescent brains are still developing, drinking may disrupt how brain connections are formed, particularly those involved in learning and memory (5, 6).
Some scientific studies have shown that for some older people, moderate drinking may have a positive effect on how the brain functions. Light and moderate drinking may improve cognition and memory, and help with the mental decline often seen with ageing (7-9).
However, these effects don’t apply to everyone and you shouldn’t begin to drink for health reasons. Only a qualified health professional can give you advice by taking into account your drinking patterns, health and lifestyle. Older adults may also need specialised advice about how drinking may affect their brains.