Q&A: Does drinking alcohol kill brain cells?

Posted by Winnie Pao, M.D.
December 29, 2015


Q. Does drinking alcohol kill brain cells?

A. Alcohol is a neurotoxin that can disrupt communications of the brain. It also affects functions of brain cells directly and indirectly through different organ dysfunction from alcohol usage and vitamin deficiency. Depending on the area of the brain affected, people can have different symptoms. Abusing alcohol can lead to seizure, stroke and dementia, to name a few conditions. Additionally, alcohol is toxic to a developing brain during pregnancy and can cause birth defects, including developmental disorders with lifelong impact.

There has been talk about alcohol being good for the brain and heart. People like to say what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Recent findings now question alcohol's benefit for the heart in terms of coronary heart disease. There’s a chemical found in red grapes called resveratrol that might be helpful to people with Alzheimer’s disease. This chemical is currently undergoing clinical trials, but more studies are needed at this time.

There’s no known level of safe drinking. Impact of alcohol consumption depends on the age, gender, medical issues, medications, genetics, personal situations, etc. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse on Alcoholism (NIAAA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have very good information regarding alcohol consumption.

If you're experiencing problems with alcohol, speak with your health care provider or a licensed counselor.

Winne Pao, M.D., is a neurologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato.

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