Drinking Alcohol Kills Brain Cells? What Does Science Say?

The idea that alcohol kills brain cells is an old one. The early temperance writers made this claim. They also insisted that the alcohol in their blood could cause “drunkards” to catch fire and burn alive.1 This combustion argument against drinking was dropped long ago. But many anti-alcohol writers continue to promote the idea that even moderate drinking of alcohol kills brain cells.

alcohol kills brain cells

Many medical researchers have studied this question. The results show that moderate alcohol drinking is linked with better cognitive (thinking and reasoning) skills and memory. That’s compared to abstaining from alcohol.

So moderate drinking doesn’t kill brain cells. To the contrary, it helps the brain function better into old age. Studies around the world involving many thousands of people report this finding.

Alcohol Abuse

Of course, years of alcohol abuse can cause serious nerve damage. Such abuse can harm message carrying dendrites on neurons in the cerebellum. That’s a part of the brain involved in learning and physical coordination

In extreme cases, it can lead (along with  a lack of vitamin B-1) to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. But even in such extreme cases, there’s no evidence evidence that alcohol kills brain cells.

But abstinence after chronic alcohol abuse enables brains to repair themselves. That’s according to research involving rats.2

During simulated alcohol “binges,” rats’ ability to create new brain cells was reduced. But after the animals no longer consumed alcohol they had a “huge burst” in new brain cell development. The study shows that brain cell production can return after abstinence from alcohol abuse.

People who drink too much and are thinking about either reducing or eliminating their drinking should find these findings encouraging. But researchers have not yet tested humans directly for the positive brain effects.

In short, your teacher was wrong!

Does Drinking Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

  1. Hanson, D. Alcohol Education, p. 13.
  2. O’Connor, A. The claim: Alcohol kills brain cells. New York Times, Nov 23, 1994.
  3. Nixon, K. and Crews, F. Abstinence from alcohol. J Neuro, 24, 9714-9722.