Science Editor James Riley (pictured below, centre) gives us an amusing but insightful description of how the brain reacts with alcohol.
With UWE Freshers’ Week looming over the city I’m sure that many people are feeling that bustling anticipation, with just a hint of reluctance, which marks this event every year. Fresh freshers and experienced veterans alike will be polishing their lines and frantically scouring the internet for late tickets to this year’s events. All of these events are different, but they have one theme in common: alcohol, and what a powerful theme this is.
With its ability to convince you to eat a 2000kcal shish kebab at 4am, wearing only a traffic cone which belongs to Avon & Somerset Police, while escorting your best-friend’s ex back home to your student digs for a night of questionable pleasure and a morning of intense regret; yes, this is a powerful theme indeed. Earlier in the night, alcohol whispered in your ear and told you that it’s a fantastic idea to take off your trousers and dive into the fountains to save a helpless floating cowboy hat (that is, a cowboy hat floating in the fountains, not the lost headwear of some careless anti-gravity gunslinger). As a social lubricant it allowed you to finally approach that attractive neighbour of yours, the one which you’ve been avoiding for two weeks, telling yourself that you are waiting for the right time—alcohol, alcohol is the right time; well, that’s what alcohol would say, wouldn’t it?
So, how does our favourite tipple compel us to carry out these regrettable acts? Aside from stimulating dopamine in your brain’s ‘reward centre’, which accounts for the high and buzzy feelings as well as why you keep going back for more; alcohol affects the levels of two major neurotransmitters—GABA and glutamate. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the brain and are normally described as inhibitory or excitatory, meaning that they decrease or increase electrical activity in the brain (this is an oversimplification as many neurotransmitters have diverse cascading effects; however, in this example of how alcohol affects brain chemistry these terms will do just fine). Alcohol increases GABA, an inhibitory signal, and decreases glutamate, an excitatory signal: leading to an overall slowdown in neural activity.
Exerting its effects in different areas of the brain, this chemical imbalance has diverse outcomes. In the cerebral cortex this can lead to the slowing of sensual processing, clouded judgement and behavioural dis-inhibition, or the “Dutch courage” you rely on to finally go and approach that fine specimen of natural symmetry who is so far out of your league that five consecutive years of promotion wouldn’t even unite you.
As alcohol continues to flood your motherboard it affects your cerebellum which is responsible for the not-so-shameful act of falling over while drunk; which everyone has gone through, or will do quite shortly.
Those gaps in your memory and late-night arguments, over everything and nothing, are caused by alcohol affecting your limbic system. The resulting exaggerated emotional state has undoubtedly led to many a late-night relationship breakup, and early-morning marriage proposal.
“Once you pop, you can’t stop,” will surely be intoned about campus for the next few weeks. This little motto is a tribute to the pituitary gland, which when under the influence of alcohol reduces secretion of anti-diuretic hormones, causing less water absorption: leading to you frequenting the W.C. over and over and over again, the ensuing dehydration being a key contributor to tomorrow’s insurmountable hangover.
The unquenchable fire ignited in your loins (for lack of a better phrase), or increase in sexual urges, is alcohol’s way of saying it has flooded your hypothalamus; although, you may struggle to honour any promises if you carry on drinking all night, as the not-so-scientific diagnosis of “brewer’s droop” may scarper your chances.
And finally, if you continue to outdrink the rest of Bristol, alcohol will affect your medulla (brain stem) which controls involuntary movements such as your heart beat and breathing. This can cause you to feel sleepy; although, it’s slightly more worrying at higher doses as this shutdown can be fatal.
How could I forget the dreaded spins? Which the buoyancy hypothesis suggests is caused by alcohol lightening the ear’s balancing fluid (ampullary cupula) compared to the surrounding fluid (endolymph) resulting in hyper-sensitivity to gravity and rotation: of which Dean Martin famously remarked: “you’re not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on.” I am sure there will be a few spinners over the coming weeks, so here is a freebie for you: anecdotal reports suggest keeping one foot flat on the ground whilst lying in bed will help alleviate the symptoms of this emetic condition. If nothing else, at least you’ve already got one foot ready to board the chunder train express!
So, that’s a quick summary of how alcohol affects your body through alterations in the chemistry of your brain; something we are all going to be experiencing over the next few weeks, months and, probably, years. Be sure to check out the next article on alcohol: Hangovers and how to beat them, it could give you the staying power you need to survive this Freshers’ Week.