Alcoholics in treatment show damage in a critical brain ability called “executive function,” which controls memory, reasoning and problem solving.
However, we have little information on the effects for heavy-drinking adults outside recovery.
A 2014 Addictive Behaviors study tried to address this imbalance and the effects of heavy drinking and the brain.
Heavy drinking is a form of alcohol consumption that threatens a person’s health by overloading the body’s ability to safely process alcohol, which has a toxic effect when present above certain amounts. Commonly accepted public health and medical standards place the limit for relatively safe drinking in men at four drinks or less in one day and a total of 14 drinks or less in one week. The same standards place the limit for relatively safe drinking in women at three drinks or less in one day and a total of seven drinks or less in one week.
People who surpass the limit for safe drinking in a single sitting often participate in binge drinking, a form of consumption that produces drunkenness in a narrow time frame and blatantly produces risks to mental and physical health. People who surpass the limit for safe drinking in a given week may also participate in binge drinking. However, they may simply have a cumulative, less obviously harmful level of consumption that nevertheless places them in the heavy drinking category and endangers their mental and physical well-being.
Executive functions of the brain
Executive function gets its name because it plays the same basic role in human consciousness that an executive or boss would play at a company or corporation. In the context of the brain, this includes such tasks as keeping track of memories, making judgments about current situations and using past and current experiences as guideposts for future plans and decisions.
Children usually gradually strengthen their executive function skills as part of the normal process of growth and development. In children and adults, impairment of these skills can have serious consequences that include a reduced ability to make or recall memories, a reduced ability to use available information appropriately, a reduced ability to form rational judgments or make plans and a reduced ability to control short-term, impulsive urges and behaviors.
Impact of heavy drinking
In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the State University of New York, Buffalo gave the 560 participating adults tests designed to measure several aspects of executive function. These aspects included the ability to maintain and focus attention, the ability to think in flexible rather than concrete terms, the ability to use short-term memory effectively and the ability to control impulsive behaviors.
The researchers also took steps to determine each participant’s frequency of alcohol consumption and overall level of alcohol consumption in the year prior to testing, as well as each participant’s level of involvement in various forms of illicit or illegal drug use during the same span of time. In addition, all 560 adults submitted basic background information on their age and level of educational advancement. None of the adults had been treated for any alcohol-related issues.
After collating all of their data, the researchers concluded that the risks for impaired executive function in untreated drinkers go up in both men and women as the drinkers’ level of alcohol consumption rises.
For heavy drinkers, clear impairments were found in aspects of brain function that included the ability to control impulsive urges, the ability to coordinate thoughts and actions, and the ability to respond to changing circumstances by thinking in flexible rather than rigid ways.
The researchers also concluded that the damaging effects of heavy drinking remain significant even when other potential influences on brain function — including education levels, age and involvement in drug use — are taken into consideration.
Problems with brain function appear quickly
The findings made by the authors of the Addictive Behaviors study indicate that the problems with higher-level brain function found in people being treated for alcoholism actually appear well before the need for treatment is recognized and/or acted upon. The authors believe that their work adds another important piece of the puzzle in determining how heavy drinking produces its damaging health effects over time.