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Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

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Alcohol is a very addictive drug that can be difficult to quit using. According to the CDC, in 2007, 61 percent of adults in the United States drank alcohol, and 21 percent has five or more drinks a day, which is classified as alcoholism.

In 2006, 13,050 people in the United States died of alcohol-related liver disease. However, alcohol does more than damage a person's liver, it can also damage the brain.

One severe condition related to alcoholism is Wernicke-Korsakoff's syndrome, which is due to a deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “heavy alcohol use affects the breakdown of thiamine in the body. Even if someone who drinks alcohol heavily follows a well-balanced diet, most of the thiamine is not absorbed.”

Symptoms start with Wernicke syndrome, then Korsakoff's syndrome; Korsakoff's syndrome symptoms result in damage to the brain. According to the NIH, symptoms include ataxia (uncoordinated and unsteady walking), inability to form new memories, severe memory loss, confabulation (making up stories), hallucinations, and vision changes (abnormal eye movements, double vision, and eyelid drooping). Damage to the brain and nerves can also result in abnormal reflexes, coordination and gait problems, loss of tissue mass, abnormal eye movement, low blood pressure, low body temperature and increased heart rate.

Just like liver damage is irreversible, so is the damage to the brain from Wernicke-Korsakoff's syndrome. The effect of alcohol on memory is the most distinguishable symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff's syndrome, especially the confabulation. The patient creates stories; however, she believes that they are true and does not realize that she is lying. In the book, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks, the essay about “The Lost Mariner” describes the story about Jimmie G., a Wernicke-Korsakoff's syndrome patient whose memory loss was so severe that he lived only in the moment.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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