Alcohol is commonly considered in a separate class from drugs. However, even though it is legal, alcohol does fall into the category of drugs. Alcohol is in fact a drug. There is also often confusion if it is considered a stimulant or depressant drug type. Even while alcohol consumed in small amounts alcohol can have a stimulating effect on people, it is identified in the class of depressant drug types. To sort through the complexities of the impact of alcohol, it is important to consider the neuroscience of its effect on our brains.
Alcohol directly impacts the chemistry of the brain by changing neurotransmitter levels. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that send signals to the body controlling thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. The structure of the brain remains the same, yet, alcohol significantly alters brain activity. Medical imaging scans conducted while people are consuming alcohol indicate decreased brain activity in the prefrontal and temporal cortex, which would explain the gaps in judgment and rational thinking. The memory loss or “blacking out” can be attributed to the reduced activity in the hippocampus (temporal cortex). Research has also demonstrated that drinking can also increase norepinephrine levels in the brain. This neurotransmitter can produce the arousal feelings that one experiences when beginning drinking. Increased levels of norepinephrine can also have a negative impact on judgment and decision making.
Also, alcohol decreases the release of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, resulting in a general slowdown of the messaging process. Alcohol is thought to increase GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter. Recent studies have indicated that there is a particular type of GABA receptor containing a delta subunit. Isolating the receptor validated that it was the delta subunit that was responding to the alcohol. GABA is the primary inhibitory neuron in our brains, so alcohol will subsequently impact many physiological and psychological functions.
When drinking alcohol, it can lead to initial increases in energy, extroversion, and risk taking. It impacts the pleasure center of the brain. At the same time, it has inhibitory effects as well, slowing down activity of the central nervous system. Similar to sedating drugs, it can contribute to a relaxing, calming feeling. Drinking alcohol also increases dopamine levels in the brain, which is considered a “feel good” neurotransmitter. People often use alcohol to help cope with stress and anxiety, as it can also have a numbing impact on emotion.
Drinking too much alcohol can cause loss of consciousness, vomiting, and memory impairment. Extreme drinking alters arousal, behavior, mood, and neuropsychological functioning.
How the alcohol impacts us is connected to the amount consumed but also to the blood alcohol content (BAC) in the body. As the BAC is rising, alcohol can function as a stimulant, but as the BAC falls, it acts in a more sedating manner.
Like all drugs, there are risks to consuming alcohol, including its addictive quality. People can become dependent on alcohol and withdrawal symptoms can be severe. Many people abuse alcohol instead of other drugs, potentially due to its accessibility, lower cost, and of course because it is legal. However, it can be dangerous when abused or consumed in large quantity. Alcohol actually kills more people annually than all other drugs combined. It has been estimated to contribute to approximately 88,000 deaths in the U.S.
Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.