A Caregiver’s View of Brain Damage Caused by Alcohol Abuse  

by | Feb 7, 2018 | Addiction Treatment | 2 comments

Perhaps you remember a particular scene from the show Cheers in which the lovable character Cliff explains why he feels his drinking habit has made him smarter. He explains that alcohol only goes after the slowest brain cells, much like a survival of the fittest scenario. He then concludes that since only his slowest, dullest brain cells are being killed off by his alcohol abuse — much like a sickly gazelle out of a healthy herd– that he is smarter and better off because of his drinking. Of course, this is not true as you may have guessed. However, why it’s not true may surprise you.

Brain Cells Are Altered, or Damaged, Not Killed:

Although Cliff was wrong, it’s for a different reason entirely than his theory. Alcohol doesn’t kill off brain cells at all. In fact, according to recent research, alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells, but instead prevents them from forming new memories in addition to other damage. This phenomenon is a situation that is often referred to as a blackout, or when a person who has been drinking heavily has no memory of their actions or even conversations from when they were drinking. Of course, a blackout is in essence due to an alternation in the brain cells, which still isn’t great.

Does That Mean it’s Okay For Your Loved One to Drink Heavily?

Aside from the safety concerns that come about as a result of your loved one not being in control of their faculties–during a blackout– there are other types of damage that can be done to their brain through alcohol abuse, especially if they are teens. For example, according to research done by Professor Susan Tapert of the University of California at San Diego, white matter in the brain becomes abnormal after a binge drinking session, which is defined as drinking four to five (or more) drinks in the span of a few hours. The professor came to this conclusion after performing MRIs on teens who were binge drinkers and those who were not and then comparing the data. She found that the white matter, which is the part of the brain that transmits signals– much like a cable or a computer USB cord–was abnormal in the teens who were binge drinkers.

How Much Drinking Leads to Damage?

These binge drinkers only had to drink four drinks for women and five drinks for men in one sitting, only one time every three months for the damage to show up on their brain. Therefore, as you can see, especially in regards to teenagers, even small amounts of heavy drinking can be detrimental.

What About Adults and Alcohol Abuse?

Perhaps your loved one is older, and feels they are not in danger of this type of damage due to their age. Unfortunately, this same type of damage to the white matter in the brain has also been found in adult alcoholics. Teenagers are just more susceptible due to their still developing brains. Therefore, adults who drink heavily are also still at great risk for brain damage.

How Should Your Loved One’s Drinking Be Addressed?

Adults who drink regularly and teens who only occasionally drink, but when they do so, drink excessively, are both equally at risk for brain damage. Therefore, it is best to encourage your loved one to only use alcohol in moderation. Of course, if they are underage, or an alcoholic of any age, it’s better for them to stop all together. After all, brain damage just isn’t worth the high, especially when they often can’t remember their “night of fun” anyway.


  1. Binge Drinking Matters to Your Brain,NIDA for Teens, July 08,2009
  2. Blackout: Why You Can’t Remember What You Did Last Night, Healthline, July 12, 2011