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What effect does alcohol have on the brain?

Most readers probably already know that alcohol acts as a depressant on the human brain. But it does more than that, even acting indirectly to stimulate the brain. That indirect stimulation might be one of the biggest reasons humans have been consuming alcohol for thousands of years.

The science of how alcohol affects us is fascinating, so let’s take a brief look inside our brains and at out behavior to see what makes us tick and how a couple of drinks during a Denver Broncos game changes our chemistry.

When we drink alcohol, brain chemistry is altered, including the neurotransmitters – the chemical highways on which signals travel through the body controlling thought, emotion and behavior. Alcohol affects what are known as “excitatory” and “inhibitory” neurotransmitters, according to a news article on the subject.

Alcohol will suppress the release of glutamate – an excitatory neurotransmitter – that increases a person’s energy level and brain activity. The result on this chemical highway is a slowing of brain activity and energy.

On the other hand, alcohol increases the effects of inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA – a calming chemical highway that is similarly affected by the sedative Xanax.

Put the effects on the two neurotransmitters together and you will understand why your thought and speech slow when drinking and why intoxicated people sometimes stumble when they walk.

While the depressant effects just discussed are pretty common knowledge, it’s less commonly known that alcohol acts to increase the release of dopamine in the part of the brain called “the reward center.” It’s the part of the brain stimulated by pleasure, such as landing a big raise, going on vacation, sexual activity and more.

By releasing dopamine, alcohol can “trick” you into feeling as if something wonderful has happened.

The overall effect is two-sided: the sense of pleasure coupled with the depressing, slowing effect on brain activity and energy.  

It’s almost certain that one of the possible aftereffects of drinking and driving – a DUI – will generate no pleasure and will in many people also have a depressing effect. You can discuss your legal options with an attorney experienced in helping people get through the legal system. 

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