Alcohol and human health
Alcohol and human health

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Alcohol and human health

1.4 Nervous-system damage

Chronic consumption of high levels of alcohol can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system. The majority of people with chronic alcoholism have some degree of dementia, which is a general loss of intellectual abilities including memory, judgement and abstract thinking, as well as personality changes. The general effect seems to be a shrinkage of brain tissue, as revealed by brain imaging techniques (Figure 6) or post-mortem studies, the extent of which correlates with the amount of alcohol consumed (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2000). In particular shrinkage is extensive in the prefrontal cortex, PFC, which has responsibility for choice, decision-making and regulation of behaviour. It is also present in deeper brain regions associated with memory, and in the cerebellum which is involved in movement and coordination.

Figure 6
Figure 6 MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) image showing how the brain structure is affected in a person with chronic alcoholism. (a) Images taken in three places in a healthy brain – these are ‘slices’ taken through the front, middle and back of the head (see inset). (b) Shows the shrinkage of the brain in images taken at the same three positions in a person with chronic alcoholism (Photo: Daniel Hommer/National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism)

Alcoholism is also associated with damage to the peripheral nerves (i.e. those connecting the central nervous system, CNS, with the rest of the body). This causes symptoms such as sensory disturbances (numbness or pain), motor disturbances (weakness and muscle wasting) and some problems with speech, swallowing, heart rate, pupil function, erectile function, breathing during sleep, etc. The mechanism of nerve damage is not clear and could be associated with a direct toxic effect of ethanol on nerves, or indirectly via nutritional deficiencies.

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