Alcohol Related Brain Damage (ARBD) describes actual damage to the structure and function of the brain due to long-term heavy drinking and poor nutrition.
Long-term heavy drinking damages brain cells.
Depletion of vitamin B1
Vitamin B1 (thiamine) is essential for the brain to function normally. A combination of heavy alcohol consumption and poor diet can lead to a deficiency in Vitamin B1. When levels of Vitamin B1 are too low, serious damage to the brain can occur. A severe lack of Vitamin B1 can lead to a medical emergency called Wernicke’s-Encephalopathy. If is not treated on time, it can cause death or can lead to the development of more permanent ARBD (Commonly known as Korsakoff’s syndrome).
Heavy drinkers often don’t eat very well:
Often swap food for alcohol and don’t eat well. At the same time, alcohol itself has carbohydrate in it which needs B12 to break it down.
Alcohol can also cause inflammation of the guts (gastritis) and vomiting, both of which mean that heavy drinkers may not be able to absorb B12
All of these things mean B12 can be at very low levels.
Alcohol can damage the liver, which breaks down toxins in our body. If the liver is not working properly, toxins stay in the body for longer and this can damage the brain.
Drunkenness can lead to falls and fights:
Many heavy drinkers have frequent falls or other head injuries. The medical term for this is traumatic brain injury, and around 25% of people with ARBD have this kind of injury.
Alcohol withdrawal can also damage the brain:
When someone is dependent on alcohol and suddenly stops drinking without medical supervision, this can cause damage to the brain as the body’s chemistry tries to re-adjust to not having alcohol.
ARBD is an umbrella term that includes a wide range of different syndromes.
The human brain is complex and alcohol can affect many areas of the brain. This explains why there are different ways in which ARBD can present itself.
Commonly it can present like a Dementia with symptoms such as short-term memory loss and change in personality and confabulation (Where a person fills gaps in memory with false information)
However, there are very important differences. Dementia is a progressive condition where a person cannot recover. ARBD can be reversible as long as a person seeks treatment and remains alcohol-free.
Korsakoff’s syndrome is a specific syndrome, which is not as common as more generalised ARDB but which also affects memory severely in a similar way to a Dementia.
Frontal Lobe Symptoms
Damage to the frontal lobe leads to problems controlling impulses, making decisions, setting goals, planning, problem-solving, assessing risk and
prioritising activities. This can mean a person may struggle to engage with services or make their appointments.
Damage to the Cerebellum of the brain can cause unsteady walking and a tremor. This can mean that a person may be more prone to falls or may find activities of daily living more of a struggle.
Research shows that in some cases, men who regularly drink more than 35 units of alcohol a week and women who drink more than 28 units of alcohol a week for a period of five years or more are at risk.
This equates to around 3½ bottles of wine or 14 pints of lager in a week for a man, and just less than 3 bottles of wine or about 11 pints of lager for a woman.
The recommended maximum alcohol use for adults (men or women) in the UK is 14 units per week, spread over three or more days and with at least two alcohol-free days each week.
People may be particularly at risk if they:
Because a woman’s brain and body are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, women develop ARBD earlier than men. (Some cases reported as early as the 20’s)