Alcohol and the Prefrontal Cortex
When we consume alcohol, we weaken our prefrontal cortex in both the short and long term. Have you ever made decisions while drinking that you wouldn’t have sober? Do you feel like a different person (for better or for worse) after a few glasses of wine? When we hear about alcohol “loosening inhibitions,” this is an interruption of the PFC’s functions. Alcohol slows down this processing and limits our access to the higher functions of the prefrontal cortex.
Instead, our brains begin to rely on lower-level functioning in the more primitive parts of our brains: the places that solely focus on short-term benefits like survival, pleasure, and immediate reward. Our PFC is no longer able to synthesize all of these signals into a rational game plan; it is no longer driving the bus when we drink alcohol.
Additionally, studies have shown that there is an actual depletion of gray matter mass in the prefrontal cortex among people with long-term alcohol use disorder. Alcohol can actually shrink this portion of our brain with repeated exposure. As a result, our higher functioning may be compromised even when we are not actively consuming alcohol. Instead of utilizing our normal impulse control, working memory, and decision making capabilities, our lower-level functioning structures are still driving the bus and seeking immediate reward, even if we are not imbibing.
But there is good news! Our brains are incredibly malleable and adaptive to change; we can repair and rebuild our prefrontal cortex and return to ourselves over time. Understanding the way our brains react to alcohol exposure can be incredibly empowering. Knowing the mechanics of what happens when we drink helps us practice compassion for ourselves, and shows us that addiction or habitual use is a much more complex issue than simple “will power.” It also provides us with the tools and motivation to return to ourselves over time, through alcohol reduction or abstinence.
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