Brain Damage From Drugs & Alcohol (Are Effects Reversible?)

Published On: July 12, 2023

Drugs and alcohol might seem so familiar to people that they are harmless, but they can have severe impacts on the brain.

It is perfectly possible that consumption can lead to brain damage, either as a direct result of the substance or due to its effect on behaviour.

However, it must be stressed that this damage is usually exacted over a long period and with consistent consumption. Only freak accidents while under the influence have the potential to suddenly injure the brain, and it is consistent users who are most at risk.

How Can Drugs and Alcohol Cause Damage to the Brain?

man sat on sofa pouring a glass of wine

Brain damage might seem like a single process, but there are a few ways in which consistent substance use can cause it.

The human brain is incredibly complex and can be impacted in numerous ways.

1. Targeting brain cells

With consistent consumption over a long period, certain substances can lead to brain cells becoming damaged and dying altogether. Alcohol, heroin, opioids – these substances, as well as many others, can lead to brain cells dying off.

How this process occurs can differ depending on the substance in question. Some substances, such as alcohol, can make the brain more vulnerable to the toxins carried in the blood. They damage the blood-brain barrier, which usually stops this from happening.

Other substances can reduce the effectiveness of sheaths, protective materials which cover nerve fibres. Without the protection of these sheaths, such nerves are vulnerable to damage, potentially affecting fundamental faculties like movement and vision.

2. Overdose

As an individual consumes drugs and alcohol more regularly, they develop an increased tolerance for it. This means that they need to consume more of it to achieve the same beneficial effects, and this puts them at risk of overdosing.

When an overdose occurs, the brain slips into a very vulnerable position. As the rest of the body struggles to function normally, the risk arises of it not receiving the things that it needs. One such need it has is oxygen, and its suppliers can drop during an overdose.

This is known as hypoxia, and it can have serious consequences for the brain. With memory and reaction times suffering, cognitive function can become inhibited, but physical movement can also fall victim. Individuals can struggle to move in the way they did before.

3. Accidents

Although not a direct impact of drug and alcohol consumption, heavy drinking and substance use puts individuals at a much higher risk of having traumatic brain injuries.

With motor skills being temporarily compromised, as well as their reasonable judgement, individuals can suffer accidents when under the influence. They can operate vehicles unsafely or have a serious fall and severely damage their brain as a result.

Such accidents are all too common, and the risk of them occurring is greatly increased when substance use is a regular part of an individual’s day-to-day life. These accidents can have an array of impacts on memory, personality, and emotional stability.

Give us a call at 0800 111 4108 for more help and information.

Addiction: A Unique Impact on the Brain

close up of face

An essential thing to understand when considering the relationship between drugs or alcohol and the brain is the role of addiction.

Addiction is an intensely neurological condition, and it can almost be likened to damage how consumption changes brain function.

When an individual first gets drunk or high after substance use, their brain experiences a euphoric sensation. Dopamine levels spike, spreading a pleasurable feeling throughout the brain. After this has gone away, the brain recalls how it was achieved.

Addicted individuals develop such a strong association between this euphoria and substance use that their brains crave drugs or alcohol regularly. However, with increased consumption, the brain begins to respond differently to substances.

With such consistent exposure to drugs or alcohol, the brain begins producing lower levels of dopamine. Dopamine receptors also start to die off, and individuals often respond by consuming higher quantities of a substance.

Such a pattern of behaviour dampens the brain’s ability to produce dopamine and inhibits its sensitivity to neurotransmitters in general. As a result, it struggles to regulate mood and hormones, increasing individuals’ susceptibility to anxiety, depression, and mood swings.

Can You Notice When Brain Damage has Occurred?

Woman looking sad

Due to the brain’s unmatched complexity, it is incredibly difficult to acknowledge when it first becomes damaged or altered.

Symptoms tend to become more pronounced over time, and this makes detecting warning signs almost impossible.

Despite this, it can still be useful to know what the signs of brain damage are. It can facilitate getting treatment, as well as make it easier to know what kind of damage has been suffered.

Some of the many symptoms of brain damage include:

  • Sensory problems affecting sight, hearing, and touch
  • Poor articulation or difficulty speaking at all
  • Little to no attention span
  • Difficulty understanding abstractions
  • Poor or limited memory
  • Perpetual disorientation and poor motor skills
  • Minimal pain threshold
  • Persistent headaches
  • High sensitivity to light
  • Low impulse control
  • Insomnia
  • Falling into unconsciousness
  • Emotional instability
  • Aggression or irritability

Give us a call at 0800 111 4108 for more help and information.

Reversing Brain Damage – is it possible?

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When considering brain damage brought about by drug and alcohol misuse, the question can arise as to whether such negative effects can be reversed.

For someone who has suffered as a result of abuse, can treatment help them recover from the neurological damage?

Unfortunately, there is not a straightforward answer to this question. While some kinds of damage can be reversed, that is not the case for all of them.

If an individual develops Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome – a condition triggered by thiamine deficiency that disrupts motor skills and triggers paralysis – early diagnosis can aid recovery.

Every situation will be different, so those who have suffered brain damage must seek medical help as soon as possible to determine whether recovery is possible through treatment.

The Short-Term Effects on the Brain

Double-vision view of a taxi

Looking at the long-term effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain is important, but this can steer attention away from the equally important short-term influences.

Heavy drinking and substance use can have immediate negative effects on the brain. Some of the most common include:

  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Paralysis and seizures
  • Impairment of cognitive faculties, affecting memory and judgement
  • Short fuse and aggression
  • Sensory hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Increased anxiety and panic attacks
  • Emotional instability

Give us a call at 0800 111 4108 for more help and information.

Drugs and Alcohol: The Impact on Mental Health

A person with clasped hands, thinking

The relationship between drugs and alcohol and the brain is complex and layered. Part of the reason for this lies in the fact that changes made to the brain’s functioning will have a nuanced impact on the way an individual feels and thinks.

Mental health is influenced by the brain, and the effects of substances can subtly tilt an individuals worldview and temperament. As a result, it is important to understand this relationship and broaden how we see how the brain can suffer.

1. Triggering mental health conditions

Many substances can affect the brain’s activity to such an extent that they trigger the development of psychological problems.

Alcohol, for example, is a depressant. With consistent use, it worsens the brain’s ability to regulate its production of neurotransmitters. This can lead not only to a greater dependence on alcohol as a source of dopamine but can lead individuals to depression and anxiety.

Different substances will have varying effects on the brain, and they will generate different levels of risk for certain conditions. Some of the other problems which can arise from substance misuse include schizophrenia, psychosis, and several personality disorders [1].

2. Making individuals more vulnerable

Heavy drinking and substance use does not always mean that an individual will develop a mental health problem. However, it is almost certain that this substance misuse will increase the chances of a problem arising by making the individual more susceptible.

Abusing drugs can cause several problems. Insomnia, for example, is a common effect of both substance misuse and withdrawal, and individuals who experience this can become fatigued or frequently unwell.

As a result of this lack of sleep triggered by drug abuse, these same individuals will be much more vulnerable to everyday stresses and problems. Their rational thinking will be impaired, and their brain will be much more likely to adopt anxious or depressive worldviews.

3. Worsening established conditions

Finally, misusing drugs or alcohol can exacerbate an individuals pre-occurring mental health issues. It can further disrupt hormone production in the brain, as well as skew misperceptions about the world to an even greater extent.

Many substances spark a temporary ‘high’ when taken, and individuals can often see this as an effective means of treating their psychological and emotional problems. Their depression, for example, becomes temporarily relieved.

However, ‘highs’ are always followed by an equally powerful comedown, characterised by a rapid drop in mood and energy. This can lead to depressive symptoms feeling much more overwhelming, pushing individuals only further into their need to use a substance to cope.

Seeking Help – When to do it

A man sitting with a female therapist who is holding a clipboard

If you suspect that you have suffered brain damage as a result of drug or alcohol abuse, or you believe someone else might have, it is essential that you seek help.

Noticing some of the warning signs of brain damage can be frightening and overwhelming, but the best thing to do is reach out for support as soon as possible. Fast and appropriate treatment can either reverse or minimise the extent of the problem.

Delaying this search for help only allows the problem to become worse and reduces the chance of recovery. The brain is an integral but sensitive part of the body, and protecting it requires immediate treatment.

Give us a call at 0800 111 4108 for more help and information.

How is Drug and Alcohol-Related Brain Damage Treated?

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Treating brain damage can take on different forms. Depending on how an individual has specifically suffered, they can either receive support in restoring some of the brain function they have left or that which minimises their discomfort.

Restoring brain health can often take the form of vitamin treatments. This usually happens when an individual has developed Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and requires thiamine supplements.

In situations where damage cannot be reversed, treatment can prioritise helping an individual slow the rate of deterioration and support them in breaking away from drug or alcohol misuse.

Rehabilitation plays a large role in this process of treatment. Medically supervised detox followed by addiction therapy can help individuals shed their dependence on a certain substance and live a lifestyle which supports their brain health and minimises damage.

Get in Touch With us at Rehab 4 Alcoholism

Two women talking

Brain damage is a scary prospect, and we know that this can be a lot to think about. But if you are consuming high quantities of drugs or alcohol, or you know someone who is, then it’s really important that you seek help.

At Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we can offer all the support you need. We understand that talking about drug and alcohol addiction can be hard, and that’s why our friendly and dedicated team are on hand to give you all the information, guidance, and support you need.

If you need us, give us a call at 0800 111 4108 and let us take care of your road to recovery.



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