Alcohol 101

What is happening to my brain while I am drunk?

Serotonin and dopamine, commonly known as the “feel-good drugs,” are released in response to alcohol which is what leads to the euphoric feelings of being drunk. Dopamine is also thought to be a chemical linked to driving addiction. Functioning of the cerebellum, a portion of the brain responsible for coordination, is slowed - leading to dizziness and sleepiness.


What is binge drinking?


Binge drinking is the act of drinking alcohol in a pattern in which one's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is above 0.08%. On average this would mean a male consuming five drinks in two hours and a female consuming four.


How can alcohol impact my education?


Studies have shown that underage consumption of alcohol significantly impairs brain functions that allow learning and memory retention. Learning abilities occur in the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped segment of the brain. Regular drinking before your brain is fully developed at 25 can damage or even destroy hippocampus cells.


How can alcohol affect my personality?


Another portion of the brain that is still developing in your adolescent years is the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for a variety of functions including:

  • Rational thinking

  • Personality

  • Planning

  • Impulse control

This cortex still developing is why adolescent years are so informative of an individual's mental health into adulthood. Abusing alcohol while these functions are already undeveloped due to age can impair them even further. Damage to these brain cells can impact judgment into adulthood.


What does it mean if I blackout?

A blackout is when a significant amount of alcohol has been consumed in a short period of time, creating gaps in one's memory. It prevents the transfer of short-term memories to long-term storage in the hippocampus. There is a distinction between blacking out and passing out, meaning both have their own dangers. Many people are still conscious in the process of a blackout, in turn causing the risk of inferior decision-making skills that can be detrimental. According to the American Addiction Center, twelve percent of women have driven whilst blackout drunk and twenty-four percent of men.


What is alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning is when an individual's BAC reaches 0.31 to 0.45 in response to binge drinking. At this point, the person is most likely unconscious and life functions within the body begin to shut down. This level of alcohol can cause lifelong damage and can even be fatal. According to American Addiction Centers, signs of alcohol poisoning include:

  • Mental confusion and stupor

  • Difficulty remaining conscious

  • Vomiting

  • Seizure

  • Slowed or irregular breathing

  • Clammy skin or paleness

  • Slow heart rate

  • Loss of gag reflex

  • Low body temperature


Does being allowed to drink while supervised decrease my likelihood of dependency?


There are many adults who allow their children to have a sip of wine for religious or cultural reasons. The idea that allowing your child to social drink under supervision being a preventative measure of abuse has been widely debunked. “For example, underage drinking in Europe, where consuming wine and other alcoholic beverages is permitted at younger ages than in the U.S. and assumed to be more ingrained in the culture, is just as dangerous as it is in the U.S. In fact, rates of binge drinking and alcohol misuse problems in youth are higher than rates in the U.S” according to McLean Hospital of Harvard Medical School.


How can I quit drinking?


Quitting any addictive substance can be difficult, but it absolutely can be done. It is important to be aware of the challenges you may potentially face so you can be prepared, as that will make your journey to quitting more successful. You will likely experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms for a period of time after you have stopped regularly using nicotine. Make sure you have a community of people there to support you through this time whether it is family, figures at school, or other trusted adults. Surrounding yourself with friends you know will not tempt you into relapsing is also beneficial. If you are looking for additional resources, consider coming to Youth Transforming Justice’s Drug and Alcohol Harm Reduction Training or speak with one of our directors.



Authored by Stacy Mosel, L.M.S.W.Edited by Amelia SharpReviewed by Ryan Kelley. “Alcohol Overdose: Signs & Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning.” American Addiction Centers, 6 Dec. 2021, https://americanaddictioncenters.org/alcoholism-treatment/overdose.

“The Effects of Alcohol on the Adolescent Brain.” Queensland Health, The State of Queensland, 23 Aug. 2017, https://www.health.qld.gov.au/news-events/news/the-effects-of-alcohol-on-the-adolescent-brain#:~:text=Difficulties%20learning%20new%20information&text=Alcohol%20can%20damage%20or%20even,damage%20can%20be%20particularly%20dangerous.

“Interrupted Memories: Alcohol-Induced Blackouts.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/interrupted-memories-alcohol-induced-blackouts.

“Just How Does Drinking Affect the Teenage Brain?” How Drinking Affects the Teenage Brain | McLean Hospital, 30 July 2021, https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/what-you-need-know-about-alcohol-and-developing-teenage-brain.

“The Science of the Sauce: What Happens to Your Brain When You Drink Alcohol?” Hackensack Meridian Health, https://www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org/en/HealthU/2018/12/27/what-happens-to-brain-drink-alcohol#.YjpgsBPMK3I.


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