5 Scary Ways Alcohol Damages the Brain

5 Scary Ways Alcohol Damages the Brain

We’ve all heard the claims that alcohol is good for your health. The media is quick to cite studies saying that a glass of wine a day reduces the risk of heart attack and that drinking two glasses of wine or beer a day has been linked to a longer life. Sounds good, but what does alcohol do to the brain?

When it comes to that 3-pound supercomputer in your head, the news isn’t so rosy. Brain SPECT imaging studies at Amen Clinics, which has built the world’s largest database of functional brain scans related to behavior, as well as other research show that alcohol can damage the brain in ways that might make you think twice the next time you’re ordering at the bar.

Brain SPECT imaging studies at Amen Clinics show that alcohol can damage the brain in ways that might make you think twice the next time you’re ordering at the bar. Click To Tweet

5 Scary Ways Alcohol Damages the Brain

1. Shrinks brain volume

People who drink just 1-7 drinks per week have smaller brains than nondrinkers, according to a 2008 study at Johns Hopkins that appeared in Archives of Neurology. This same research found that people who have 2 or more drinks per day have even more brain shrinkage. Changes in the brain can occur early. A 2020 study in Scientific Reports found that moderate drinking was associated with lower total brain volume in early middle age (ages 39-45) in both males and females. Research on adolescents and alcohol consumption in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience showed that those who became heavy drinkers between the ages of 12-17 compared to those who did not drink alcohol started out with less brain volume and lost even more brain volume over time. When it comes to the brain, size matters!

2. Lowers blood flow to the brain

The brain scans of heavy drinkers show reduced overall blood flow to the brain. The brain uses 20% of the blood flow in your body and it is critical for healthy brain function. When levels are low it can lead to a laundry list of problems—brain fog, poor decision-making, trouble concentrating, impulsivity, and more. It’s especially important to know that low blood flow on brain scans is the #1 predictor of future memory problems and Alzheimer’s disease.

SPECT Scan of heavy alcohol abuse.

3. Causes atrophy of the hippocampus

Drinking 1-2 glasses of wine a day, which is considered “moderate” drinking, leads to atrophy in the hippocampus, according to a 30-year study of 550 women and men that was published in 2017 in BMJ. The hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory. In this study, people who had 4 or more drinks per day were 6 times more likely to have atrophy in this critically important region of the brain compared with nondrinkers, and moderate drinkers had 3 times the risk. The researchers noted that they found no protective effects from light drinking. And higher alcohol use was also linked to changes in the microstructure of the corpus callosum, a thick bundle of nerve fibers that connect the two hemispheres of the brain and that is involved in allowing both sides of the brain to communicate effectively.

4. Reduces the number of new brain cells

Excessive alcohol consumption lowers the generation of new brain cells, especially in the hippocampus, according to animal research presented at Neuroscience in 2009. In the study, monkeys that consumed alcohol experienced a 58% decline in the number of new brain cells formed and a 63% reduction in the survival rate of new brain cells.

5. Increases the risk of dementia

Compared with non-drinkers and light drinkers, moderate to heavy drinkers have a 57% higher risk of dementia, according to research in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A. Drinking can literally make you lose your mind.


In people who abuse alcohol, the impacts on the brain can be even greater. A wealth of evidence, including findings in a 2016 review in Frontiers in Psychiatry, suggests that certain brain regions, such as the prefrontal cortex (involved in decision-making, impulse control, planning, and follow-through) and the hippocampus (involved in memory, mood, and learning), experience the most damage from long-term abuse of alcohol.


Although these findings paint a grim picture of alcohol’s impact on the brain, the effects don’t have to be permanent. You are not stuck with the brain you have. Brain imaging studies at Amen Clinics show that the brains of heavy drinkers and alcohol abusers have the potential for recovery. Before-and-after SPECT scans in patients who follow a brain rehab program show remarkable improvements in blood flow and activity in the brain. Additional scientific evidence has found that the cognitive deficits related to damage to the prefrontal cortex recover more rapidly than those associated with the hippocampus.

To rehab your brain, follow these tips:

  • Stop poisoning your brain with alcohol.
  • Love your brain.
  • Fuel your brain with nutrient-dense foods.
  • Avoid sugar in all its forms.
  • Eliminate things that lower blood flow, including too much caffeine or smoking.
  • Learn to kill the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) that steal your happiness.

Addiction, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we use brain SPECT imaging as part of a comprehensive evaluation to help our patients see the effects alcohol has had on their brain. This is often a powerful first step to quitting alcohol or reducing consumption. We use an integrated brain-body approach to healing the brain that includes biological, psychological, social, and spiritual areas of your life.

To learn more, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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  1. I would love for my 30 year old daughter to receive
    Information about hypnosis for her alcohol addiction. She is so smart about other things but can’t see how her drinking effects her family .

    Comment by Sandra Grischenko — August 17, 2019 @ 2:27 AM

  2. Very informative article. How do we send this information to the young people starting their journey through college life to read and heed the message. We might gain a more productive generation rather than so many addicted adults.

    Comment by Joy Steele — August 21, 2019 @ 4:42 AM

  3. This report could be of great value if shown in Middle and high schools.. in addition to proper parental guidance and possibly could make students from ages 12-thru high school aware of the damages to their brains, thus causing poor study habits and inability to learn to their fullest capacities.

    Comment by Barbara R. — August 21, 2019 @ 6:24 AM

  4. I am an energy worker. I see, sense and understand that our issues are “not us.” I know this sounds odd but it is the truth. Our emotions are the link to open the door, should someone choose to be healed, and the blocks, sabotage and mutiny that we create ourselves, can be removed and we can heal. It’s up to the individual to want to be healed. In any healing when you are on the outside, take the first step yourself and look within to start your healing. When we start to heal ourselves, everyone else we know is affected positively by our actions, and ultimately, or own healing.

    Comment by Anne K. Ross — August 21, 2019 @ 6:42 AM

  5. I concur fundamentally. A lot of exercise and fresh air and proper eating habits help us keep the smart enzymes in our brain active. Everything noted in these studies are normal even without alcohol in those of us over 55. And being under the influence is detrimental in the long run but so is aging. However, everything we eat and do, including red meat and cell phones, is detrimental to our health. So, avoiding excess in living does actually help us stay healthier but moderation in all things is actually good for us. Flying in the face of Johns Hopkins research is the expression if it makes you happy, literally and figuratively, it can’t be that bad. And isn’t.

    Comment by Lorin Card — August 21, 2019 @ 12:05 PM

  6. Very well put Lorin. Moderation of many things in our daily lives is important for a long, healthy and FUN life. Enjoy your day!

    Comment by Kevin Ritchie — August 23, 2019 @ 4:16 AM

  7. So very true Lorin, balance it the key to life in my humble opinion. I thoroughly enjoy my red wine with my meal!! There is nothing wrong with this I am a yoga teacher and work out 6 days a week. I have many friends and love my life!!!

    Comment by karen — August 23, 2019 @ 10:43 AM

  8. Are you referring to opening the door to the spirit realm? If so, it’s not “energy” , we need to call it what it is. Hypnosis can make things worse.

    Comment by Amy G — August 26, 2019 @ 5:46 PM

  9. You can protest all you want about fun and how you enjoy your wine, but the bottom line is that alcohol causes brain cells to die EVERY TIME you consume any. Alcohol causes the blood cells to clump together, causing some of the tiny capillaries to plug up and stop the blood flow to a tiny piece of brain tissue. With no blood supply, the tissue dies. This is what causes the brain shrinkage. The more you drink, the more damage it causes. The less you drink, the less damage. But, like it or not, the bottom line is that it ALWAYS causes damage.

    Comment by Bern — September 21, 2019 @ 3:28 AM

  10. So–if a person is diagnosed as schizophrenic in the first place(starting at age 18) and then becomes an alcoholic as well the persons brain has no healing available.

    Comment by Lillie Jane Owen — September 21, 2019 @ 8:21 AM

  11. I am grateful to hear or rather read about yet another negative effect of my alcoholism thereby giving me even more reason to stay sober. I also suffer from mental illness, Bipolar 1, and have had one serious episode of schizophrenic delusions, hallucinations, and mania. I have been in inpatient treatment eighteen times, live in a sober living house today and am fifty one years of age. Thank you for reading my comments and any insights or recommendations would be greatly appreciated. God bless.

    Comment by Christine Murphy — October 18, 2019 @ 9:25 PM

  12. Do these brain changes show as white matter on an MRI?

    Comment by Anita Dodd — December 5, 2019 @ 12:15 PM

  13. And? No one gets out of this life alive. That’s the bottom line. Remember that next time you start saying these things to people.

    Comment by Donar — December 28, 2019 @ 10:16 PM

  14. Christine, I have been studying the brain, Dr Amen’s genius work as well as the work of Dr Dawson Church, Dr Bruce Lipton and Dr Joe Dispenza for about 2 years now. My sweet son brought us to Dr Amen’s clinic where we received awesome help and a true diagnosis following his SPECT scan. Dr Amen is totally correct, we need to look after our physical, emotional and spiritual self. The whole picture (he has four parts).
    A big thing that I have learned this year is that we have a physical brain that needs all that it needs but we also have our conscious and subconscious mind. Our conscious mind runs about 5% of our day with a 100 byte per second speed and our subconscious mind runs 95% of our day on a 4 million byte per second computer. Which one do you think will win? (Dr Bruce Lipton, on programming) From the last tri-mester of pregnancy to around 7 years of age, a child is in hypnogogic state (lower brain waves like theta). At this time our subconscious stores and learns all things that we need to function in our world. This would be great if all of our programs that we learned were healthy. This is the time where our personality is formed. Now our life is built referring and adding to these programs.
    I have become a Psych-K facilitator and am currently training in EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique, Dawson Church) Both energy healing modalities work like a million bucks! One can feel better in minutes! Change programs that have been running your whole life in minutes. Lasting results, layers peeled away easily. I know, I have been using them on myself and others. They have scientific proof using brain scans showing differences before and after. Look up Dawson Church on Youtube, he offers a free mini EFT booklet that you can download and get started in 5 minutes at EFTUniverse.com. Psych-K information Dr Bruce Lipton “Biology of Belief” and/or videos on programming
    Keep learning, science is just opening up and we need to think outside of the box like Dr. Amen!

    Comment by Donna Terry — December 30, 2019 @ 8:14 AM

  15. I’m aged 59 a recovering alcoholic 20 years sober next month, will my brain recover from previous alcohol consumption and will I be more predisposed to dementia because of it. After being hospitalised a psychiatric consultant told me in 1999 if I didn’t stop drinking I would have dementia in two years, I had difficulty recalling details of a story and difficulty coordinating a heel to toe walking test in his office and I hadn’t had a drink in 4 weeks at that time.

    Comment by Wesley — January 13, 2020 @ 1:06 PM

  16. This is an article that needs to read very carefully. Each paragraph changes the context from heavy drinkers, light drinkers, non-drinkers, very heavy drinkers and alcoholics. From a critical thinkers perspective, it leaves out important information. For example, by how much does a light drinkers brain shrink compared to a non-drinker, by what amount is the blood flow restricted or lessened. How much alcohol did the monkeys with fewer brain cells drink, were they moderate drinkers, heavy or very heavy? By leaving out this important information the reader is really left with an incomplete argument for or against, let’s say, having one beer or one glass of wine a day.

    Comment by David Chaffe — January 18, 2020 @ 7:24 AM

  17. Amy G, I think Anne K Ross was talking about the human electro magnetic field. She was not talking about hypnosis at all. I also think when she mentioned ’emotions are the link to open the door’ that when we begin to look more carefully at our emotions, no longer denying, avoiding, drinking etc to to self medicate out of denied emotional pain, the insight into our emotions opens the door to far improved personal growth and health.

    Comment by Licia — August 8, 2020 @ 3:47 AM

  18. Patty
    I love a G&T but this makes me think!

    5 Scary Ways Alcohol Damages the Brain:

    1. Shrinks brain volume
    2. Lowers blood flow to the brain
    3. Causes atrophy of the hippocampus
    4. Reduces the number of new brain cells
    5. Increases the risk of dementia

    Comment by Patty Pereira Taylor — April 11, 2022 @ 2:25 AM

  19. Caring for your brain should be a course of study starting in Middle School. I have been telling my grandson since he could understand me “Protect that brain of yours, it is the boss baby of your entire body” lol

    Comment by Bsrbara — May 12, 2022 @ 7:17 AM

  20. It's awesome designed for me to have a website, which is helpful foor my experience.

    thankos admin

    Comment by spin the wheel — November 29, 2023 @ 5:47 AM

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