The effect of alcohol on the brain is still at large

This post is also available in Dutch.

Did you think scientists understood how drunkenness arose? Nothing is less true! The effect of alcohol on the brain appears virtually impossible to replicate in the lab.


Shelves filled with alcoholic drinks. Foto: Ralf Roletschek (CC By 2.5)

Nearly worldwide, alcohol benefits from the unique status of being a recreational drug. People most often don’t even consider it to be ranked as a ‘drug’; that’s how tolerated and accepted it has become. In the Netherlands, the Trimbos Institute reported that an average of 7 liters of pure alcohol is consumed per person per year.

While alcohol for some is a source of pleasure, it is a source of great suffering for others. Its negative effects can be attested by the number of alcoholics in rehabilitation, deaths from alcohol-related road accidents and violent crime, and not to mention the health problems that alcohol brings.

It so often goes awry when it comes to alcohol, it is therefore important that we understand what effects it has on our bodies and brains. However this seems to be more challenging than expected, because to replicate the effect of alcohol on the brain is nearly impossible in the laboratory.

Alcohol influences the communication between brain cells
Your brain houses special receptors, called GABA receptors, which slow down communication between brain cells. Other receptors called glutamate receptors, are there to stimulate this communication. Therefore, GABA and glutamate hold each other as it were in balance.

These GABA receptors work better when alcohol is present, whereas glutamate receptors work less well. This is what happens when you’re drunk: information processing in the brain slows down, so that you feel and remember less.

Growing brain cells in the lab
Researchers have been able to map out the effects of alcohol by growing brain cells in the lab and measuring their function with or without alcohol.

The problem with this kind of method is that the effects of alcohol can only be measured when the amount of alcohol added is equal to the amount that would otherwise induce a coma, or do worse in a living person. The effect of this ancient stimulant is therefore much subtler, and remains a mystery for scientists.

One of the conclusions that can be drawn is that we should not underestimate the effects of alcohol, simply because it is a legalized drug. The truth is that we still do not know what alcohol does with our brain.

More Information
Open access to scientific article on the receptors involved in the effect of alcohol

Open access to scientific article about the effects of alcohol

Youtube video about the effects of alcohol on the brain.

This blog was inspired by a previous blog of Peter, rewritten by Mahur, and edited by Jeroen.

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