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Science, Maths & Technology


Updated Monday, 26th September 2005

Why does alcohol do what it does to us?

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Alcohol is a social drug. It can make a person the ’life and soul’ of the party or may make them sad and withdrawn. It intoxicates, causing slurred speech and difficulty in walking.

Alcohol [Image: skycaptaintwo under CC-BY-NC licence] Creative commons image Icon skycaptaintwo via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Alcohol [Image: skycaptaintwo under CC-BY-NC licence]

Physiologically it acts as a depressant, freeing parts of the brain’s cortex from inhibitory controls, by influencing the firing and voltage of nerve cells.

The name for the alcohol molecule is ethanol, or ethyl alcohol. Ethanol is made up of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen atoms. Unlike most food, the body absorbs ethanol directly through the stomach walls and small intestines.

This may take anything from thirty minutes to two hours, depending on the amount of ethanol, its concentration and the nature of any food eaten before or during its absorption.

Ethanol is then carried through the body to the liver, where it reacts with oxygen to create acetic acid.

An excessive intake of ethanol has a damaging effect on health, with prolonged excessive consumption leading to alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver.

There is a belief nowadays that alcohol in moderate amounts exerts a protective effect against chronic heart disease.

Take It Further

You can learn how the senses interact with the environment in the Open University course Signals and Perception: The Science of the Senses.






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