We’ve all heard it, whether from parents, teachers, or after-school specials: alcohol kills brain cells. But is there any truth to this? Experts don’t think so.

While drinking can certainly make you act and feel as though you’ve lost a brain cell or two, there’s no evidence that this actually happens. But that doesn’t mean alcohol has no effect on your brain.

Here’s a look what actually happens to your brain when you drink.

Before getting into the effects of alcohol on the brain, it’s important to understand how experts talk about alcohol use.

Generally, drinking is classified as moderate, heavy, or binge:

  • Moderate drinking is typically defined as 1 drink a day for females and 1 or 2 drinks a day for males.
  • Heavy drinking is typically defined as more than 3 drinks on any day or more than 8 drinks a week for females. For males, it’s more than 4 drinks on any day or more than 15 drinks a week.
  • Binge drinking is typically defined as 4 drinks within 2 hours for females and 5 drinks within 2 hours for males.

What’s in a drink?

Since not everyone’s idea of a drink is the same, experts refer to a drink as the equivalent of:

  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits, roughly a shot
  • 12 ounces of beer, the equivalent of a standard can
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor, about three quarters of a pint glass
  • 5 ounces of wine, roughly a half glass
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Alcohol is a neurotoxin that can affect your brain cells directly and indirectly. It enters your bloodstream immediately and reaches your brain within five minutes of drinking it. And it typically takes only 10 minutes to start feeling some of the effects.

It’s first big effect is triggering the release of endorphins. These feel-good hormones are the reason light-to-moderate drinkers feel more relaxed, sociable, and happy when drinking.

Heavy or binge drinking, on the other hand, can also interfere with your brain’s communication pathways and affect how your brain processes information.

In the short-term, you can expect:

  • changes in your mood and behavior
  • difficulty concentrating
  • poor coordination
  • slurred speech
  • confusion

Alcohol poisoning

Alcohol poisoning can happen when you drink a lot of alcohol in a short period. This can cause the alcohol in your bloodstream to interfere with parts of your brain that are responsible for basic life support functions, such as:

  • breathing
  • body temperature
  • heart rate

Left untreated, alcohol poisoning can cause permanent brain damage and death.

Drinking can have long-term effects on your brain, including decreased cognitive function and memory issues.

Brain atrophy

Researchers have long known that brain atrophy — or shrinkage — is common among heavy drinkers. But a 2017 study found that even moderate drinking can have similar effects.

Drinking causes shrinkage in the hippocampus, which is the area of your brain that’s associated with memory and reasoning. The amount of shrinkage appears to be directly related to how much a person drinks.

Results of the study showed that people who drank the equivalent of four drinks a day had almost six times the shrinkage as nondrinkers. Moderate drinkers had three times the risk of shrinkage than nondrinkers.

Neurogenesis issues

Even though alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells, it can negatively impact them long-term. For starters, too much alcohol can interfere with neurogenesis, which is your body’s ability to make new brain cells.

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome

Heavy drinking can also lead to a thiamine deficiency, which can cause a neurological disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. The syndrome — not the alcohol — results in a loss of neurons in the brain, causing confusion, memory loss, and loss of muscle coordination.

Is the damage reversible?

While the long-term effects of alcohol on the brain can be quite serious, most of them of the damage is reversible is you stop drinking. Even brain atrophy can start to reverse after a few weeks of avoiding alcohol.

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Alcohol can have additional effects on developing brains, which are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. This makes the risk of long-term and permanent brain damage more likely.

In utero

Consuming alcohol while pregnant can cause permanent damage to the developing brain and other organs of the fetus. It can also result in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).

FASDs are an umbrella term for different conditions caused by exposure to alcohol in utero.

These include:

  • fetal alcohol syndrome
  • partial fetal alcohol syndrome
  • alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder
  • neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure

FASDs interfere with the brain’s growth and development, leading to lifelong physical, mental, and behavioral problems.

Common signs and symptoms include:

While FASDs aren’t reversible, early intervention can help improve a child’s development.

In minors

During the adolescent and teen years, the brain continues to develop and mature. This continues until the early twenties.

Alcohol use in minors has been linked to significant shrinkage of the hippocampus and smaller prefrontal lobes than people of the same age that don’t drink.

The prefrontal lobe is the part of the brain that undergoes the most change during the teen years and is responsible for judgment, planning, decision making, language, and impulse control. Drinking during this time can affect all of these functions and impair memory and learning.

If you’re worried that your drinking is starting to take a toll on your brain, consider reaching out to your healthcare provider. You can also find help online through the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Not sure if you’re misusing alcohol? Here are some signs to watch for:

  • you’re unable to limit how much you drink
  • you spend a lot of time drinking or getting over a hangover
  • you feel a strong urge or craving to drink alcohol
  • you drink even though it’s causing problems with your health, or work or personal life
  • you’ve developed a tolerance and need more alcohol to feel its effects
  • you experience withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink, such as nausea, shaking, and sweating

Remember, most of the effects of alcohol on your brain are reversible with a bit of time.

Alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells, but it does have both short- and long-term effects on your brain, even in moderate amounts. Going out for happy hour a few nights a month likely won’t cause any long-term damage. But if you find yourself drinking heavily or binge drinking often, consider reaching out for help.

Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.