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Neuroscience For Kids

Alcohol and the Brain

Alcohol may be the world's oldest known drug. Fermented grain, fruit juice and honey have been used to make alcohol (ethyl alcohol or ethanol) for thousands of years. The production of products containing alcohol has become big business in today's society and the consumption and abuse of alcohol has become a major public health problem. On this page, only the effects of alcohol on the brain and behavior will be discussed. For further information about other effects of alcohol, see the links at the bottom of this page.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. Factors that influence how alcohol will affect a person include:

The Path of Alcohol in the body

  1. Mouth: alcohol enters the body.
  2. Stomach: some alcohol gets into the bloodstream in the stomach, but most goes on to the small intestine.
  3. Small Intestine: alcohol enters the bloodstream through the walls of the small intestine.
  4. Heart: pumps alcohol throughout the body.
  5. Brain: alcohol reaches the brain.
  6. Liver: alcohol is oxidized by the liver at a rate of about 0.5 oz per hour.
  7. Alcohol is converted into water, carbon dioxide and energy.

Effects of Alcohol

In low doses, alcohol produces:

In medium doses, alcohol produces:

In high doses, alcohol produces:

Effects of Alcohol on the Nervous System

As mentioned above, alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. It acts at many sites, including the reticular formation, spinal cord, cerebellum and cerebral cortex, and on many neurotransmitter systems. Alcohol is a very small molecule and is soluble in "lipid" and water solutions. Because of these properties, alcohol gets into the bloodstream very easily and also crosses the blood brain barrier. Some of the neurochemical effects of alcohol are:

Chronic drinking can lead to dependence and addiction to alcohol and to additional neurological problems. Typical symptoms of withholding alcohol from someone who is addicted to it are shaking (tremors), sleep problems and nausea. More severe withdrawal symptoms include hallucinations and even seizures.

Chronic alcohol use can:

Drinking and Driving Don't Mix

The following tables are used with the permission of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. They illustrate the effects of alcohol consumption on blood alcohol levels and driving skills. These data should be used only as a general reference for the effects of alcohol because body weight and other variables may influence the results. Also, some states define the limit of legal intoxication at a lower blood alcohol level (0.08%).

Calculating blood alcohol concentrations (Reference: Winek, C., in Forensic Sciences, edited by C.W. Wecht, Matthew Binder Press, New York, 1984):

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Another consequence of alcohol use is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Inside the mother, a fetus is fed through the placenta. Because alcohol passes easily through the placenta, every time the mother drinks alcohol, the developing fetus gets a dose of alcohol. Alcohol disrupts normal brain development - THAT IS A FACT!!! Fetal exposure to alcohol can impair the development of the corpus callosum (the main connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain), reduce the size of the basal ganglia and damage the cerebellum and cerebral cortex.

Compared to normal babies, babies born with FAS have:

Did you know?

References and further information

For more information about alcohol, see:

  1. Alcohol and Traffic Death Statistics
  2. Fetal Alcohol and Drug Unit
  3. National Organization on Fetal Alchohol Syndrome
  4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
  5. Blood Alcohol Level Calculator

Information about other drugs:

Alcohol Amphetamines Caffeine Cocaine
Heroin Inhalants LSD Marijuana
Nicotine Ecstasy Rohypnol 1,4-Butanediol
GHB Barbiturates PCP Hallucinogenic Mushrooms

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