You've heard the phrase "drinking kills brain cells." What you may not know is that the statement is completely false. While pure alcohol will definitely kill cells — hence its modern use as a disinfectant — the kind you can drink at a bar has almost no effect on the number of nerve cells in your brain.
Even frequent drinking has little to no effect on the overall number or density of neurons in your noggin. To be sure, the team of researchers who made that discovery in the 1990s sliced up the brains of alcoholics and non-alcoholics and counted up all their neurons. On average, both groups had the exact same number of brain cells.
This short video from SciShow does a great job of explaining:
Here's what actually happens to your brain on alcohol: While the whiskey shots you took aren't killing your brain cells, they are causing other problems. To carry out any action, from picking up that shot glass to leaving the bar, our brain cells need to talk to one another. But copious amounts of liquor (or beer or wine) eats away at the tree-like branches at the end of neurons that carry messages from one cell to another. The reason you might have trouble walking in a straight line, then, isn't because your cells are dying in droves, but because they aren't able to communicate with one another as well as they might when you're sober.
But there's good news: Fortunately, we have billions of brain cells, so even with a few impaired neurons, the others pick up the slack, allowing us to manage all right even after a few drinks. Plus, most of the damage we do to our cells during a night of partying isn't permanent. Simply taking a break from alcohol gives the cells a chance to repair themselves. Even amongst long-time alcoholics, researchers have found, getting off the wagon appears to reverse most of the damage.
So why is this pervasive myth still around? Even if it doesn't kill your brain cells, excessive drinking can wreck havoc on the brain. And the damage happens regardless of whether you're a daily drinker or a weekend binger. A recent study in the journal Neuroscience even found that people who drank daily had up to 40% less nerve cell development in the region of the brain crucial for learning and memory.
Paradoxically, frequent drinking may also inhibit the brain connections we rely on to process social cues. In a small study, scientists recently discovered that excessive alcohol appeared to block two regions the brain uses to interpret emotions, making it difficult for heavy drinkers to respond to emotional cues from friends or others in their immediate environment.
Long-term drinking can also cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a B vitamin deficiency that leads to confusion, blurred vision and coordination and memory problems. Scientists estimate that more than 80% of alcoholics have this syndrome which, if left untreated, can cause coma or even death.
The takeaway: Contrary to what your friends might have told you, your drinking habit isn't murdering your brain cells. But too much unchecked boozing can still cause pretty severe damage, so remember to take it easy.
If there's one rule that applies perfectly to this scenario, it's "everything in moderation." And if you suspect you've taken your partying too far, it's good to know that most of the damage is reversible.