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Does Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

generic champagne toast. (Image credit: Stock.xchng)

If you've ever been drunk (or even tipsy), or seen someone who is, you know there's definitely some cognitive impairment going on. Reaction time, coordination, and speech are slowed. Judgment and decision-making abilities get a lot worse, sometimes wrongly convincing us that we are more attractive to the opposite sex—or that we can safely drive our car. But is the impairment permanent or temporary? Some people believe that the consequences of drinking alcohol are far worse than a nasty hangover, that it can actually lead to brain damage because alcohol kills brain cells. During Prohibition, teetotaling temperance activists asserted this belief, citing it among the dangers of drink.

The truth is that the impairment is usually temporary, not permanent. It is not the brain cells themselves but the nerve connections between them (called dendrites) which are most affected by alcohol. The communication signals are inhibited, thus slowing down mental processing and the central nervous system. But the brain cells themselves bounce back with no damage for the most part. Long-term alcohol use, however, is another story. There's plenty of research showing that sustained alcohol consumption can and does cause irreversible neurological disorders.

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Benjamin Radford
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.