Alcohol holds a special but complicated place in our society. A brightly colored Cosmopolitan is the drink of choice for the glamorous characters on Sex and the City. James Bond prefers his martini—shaken—not stirred—to unwind after taking out a villain.
Weddings would not be the same without a champagne toast by the best man and the maid of honor. When alcohol is used responsibly it can be appropriate in social settings however, when it is abused it can lead to all kinds of health and social problems.
Misconceptions About Alcohol
Some people think that beer will not get you as drunk as hard liquor but that is not true. The alcohol is what gets a person drunk. It is true that beer has less alcohol in it per unit but if enough beers are ingested it is the same as drinking hard alcohol.
Another myth is that alcohol is relaxing, but a small amount of alcohol initially acts as a stimulant. Larger amounts depress the central nervous system and the feeling of relaxation arises because the brain is deadened. This can result in accidents and poor decisions that can lead to injury or even death.
Many college students believe that marijuana, cocaine and opiates are the biggest problem on campus, however alcohol is both the most prevalent and the most abused drug on college campuses.
Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Using brain imaging and psychological tests, researchers have identified the areas of the brain that are the most vulnerable to alcohol’s effects (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2011)
Cerebellum: The cerebellum controls motor function and when damaged results in a loss of balance and stumbling. It also can affect cognitive functions like memory or emotional response.
Cerebral Cortex: The ability to think, plan, interact socially and behave intelligently stem from the cerebral cortex. Changes or damage to this area of the brain can impair the ability to solve problems, remember and learn.
Limbic System: The complex limbic system of the brain system monitors a variety of tasks including memory and emotion. Damage to this area impairs each of these functions.
Chemicals produced by the nervous system that convey information between nerve cells are neurotransmitters. One neurotransmitter that is extremely sensitive to even small amounts of alcohol is called glutamate. Glutamate affects memory. Researches believe that alcohol interferes with glutamate action and this may be what causes some people to temporarily black out or forget what happened during a period of heavy drinking.
When the brain tries to compensate for these changes with alcohol, neurotransmitters adapt anyway to create balance in the brain. However, the adaptations can have long term negative consequences.
Signs of Problems with Alcohol
You may or may not think you have a problem with alcohol. Some problem drinkers rationalize their behavior and deny a problem exists. Drinking becomes problem drinking if it causes trouble in your relationships, in school, in social activities, or in how you think and feel. The more severe the problems, the more serious is the drinking problem.