Alcohol kills brain cells

Question to the brain

Prof. Dr. Michael Soyka, Medical Park Chiemseeblick, Bernau: Yes, quite massively. On the one hand, we know that alcohol kills nerve cells in the periphery, i.e. the nerves that supply the muscles in the legs, for example. This is why so-called polyneuropathy is one of the most common neurological sequelae in alcoholism.

On the other hand, alcohol directly kills nerve cells in the brain. When other factors are added, such as vitamin deficiencies from poor diet, chronic alcoholism can lead to brain damage. Above all, alcohol has direct neurotoxic damage to nerve cells, even for a short time, if someone drinks large amounts of alcohol one evening.

As a rule, however, you don't notice much of it. The dose and the length of the dose make up the harm. In chronic alcoholism, there are severe courses of brain damage, sometimes in extreme form. For example, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome often develops, which permanently affects memory performance. You only get such damage, with a few exceptions, if you have drunk a lot over a very long period of time.

But there are also some neuropsychiatric sequelae in alcoholism that can occur very quickly. For example, small bleeding in the brain. In addition, not all areas of the brain are equally sensitive. The higher parts of the brain, especially the frontal cortex and the cerebellum, are very sensitive. That is why alcohol addicts often have problems with their balance and coordination.

The consequences of alcoholism have been very well proven by a large number of studies. This includes a whole series of animal experiments, including cell tests. In humans, the use of imaging techniques, such as a computer tomograph, can show the brain matter relatively well. The examinations usually take place on alcohol patients and clearly show that brain damage occurs here.

A so-called brain atrophy was found in many cases. The brain has fewer cells than healthy people. The brain is shrinking, to put it simply. There are also neuropathological tests that support this. It could also be shown - and this is good news - that in some of the patients with significant cerebral atrophy this regresses over time if they no longer drink. The synapses form new sprouts. To some extent, this damage can be reversed with abstinence.

Recorded by Maike Niet