Alcohol affects neurotransmitter pathways

Credit: Jarel Grant/Assistant Art Editor Credit: Jarel Grant/Assistant Art Editor

Many a person (over the age of 21, of course) has woken up with a pounding headache, forehead resting softly in a puddle of vomit against the hard, ceramic toilet seat. They know the feeling of reaching out for the cold, unforgiving plastic of the toilet paper dispenser to try and lift their heads but their necks didn’t love the angle they slept at and scream in pain as they look around to collect their bearings. The fluorescent lights pound against their eyes as they gather themselves, climb to their feet, and attempt to stumble back to their rooms before someone notices. You see, our friends were experiencing the after-effects of alcohol overconsumption.

This week’s “How Things Work” has a distinctly Carnival-themed flavor: alcoholic beverages. Drinks with large amounts of the drug ethanol what we call alcoholic beverages have been a staple of many cultures since the invention of fermentation no later than 6,600 BC. It plays a prominent role in many religious ceremonies, cultural milestones, and other social events.

Despite making speaking physically difficult, it is occasionally referred to as a “social drug” due to its prevalence as a gateway to “relaxation” or “fun-having,” but for many people alcohol ends up doing much more than just loosening them up for an evening out. Ethanol has significant effects on people who consume it and does more to someone’s body than party movies let on.

Liquid ethanol is easily consumed and absorbed into one’s bloodstream through the stomach, which is why most alcohol consumption occurs from drinking. From the bloodstream, it is transported through the blood to the brain, where it begins to do its intended job. “Drunkenness” occurs when alcohol affects the brain’s neurotransmitter pathways, or the circuits by which the brain uses molecules to activate or inhibit downstream neurons. The most common excitatory neurotransmitter a neurotransmitter that makes your brain more likely to send a signal to your body affected by alcohol is glutamate.

Glutamate itself is necessary for keeping brain activity levels high, which helps with learning, memory, and cognition, among other things. Ethanol inhibits the activity of glutamate, effectively reducing these factors. Alcohol also increases levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter.

Since excitatory neurotransmitters increase activity and inhibitory neurotransmitters decrease it, alcohol’s effects classify it as a depressant, or a drug which depresses bodily functions. Slowing down glutamate activity causes slurred speech and poor motor function. Increasing GABA increases brain inhibition, which slows down processing and motor functions even further, giving one a sleepy feeling.

However, not all of the effects of alcohol consumption involve decreased motor function. Once that Vladdy and Coke gets into your brain, it stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain, which activates the brain’s reward centers.

This causes feelings of excitement and euphoria and makes the person ingesting alcohol feel much better. This effect is probably most of the reason people drink, since increased happiness is a desired outcome in most settings. While dopamine release is a positive in small doses, this effect decreases over time. Since people enjoy things that give them dopamine, people who no longer get feelings of euphoria from alcohol will continue to drink afterwards in search of that same high. This leads to one of the most harmful potential effect of alcohol, addiction. Alcohol addiction is sometimes referred to as alcoholism.

The brain is not the only organ affected by alcohol. Livers are often the organ most damaged by frequent drinking. When you drink too much for your liver to process, fat can build up and cause significant harm to your liver. Even one binge causes damage to occur, and it builds up over time.

While safe, responsible alcohol consumption can be a fun time, it is important to consume in moderation and not end up in a situation similar to the first paragraph of this article or else you risk doing long-term harm to your body. Alcohol has been around for longer than written history, but so has moderate consumption. Restraint can keep a fun night from turning into a vomit-themed morning or a liver-themed everlasting night.