Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Alcohol is defined chemically as being composed of a hydroxyl group and an alkyl group held together at the carbon atom of the alkyl group. We shall focus only on ethanol, which comes from plants and is the alcohol in "alcoholic beverages"; beer, wine, sch'more schnapps, scrumpy, mead, that juice box you left in your locker for six weeks in seventh grade... Things humans ingest.

As I mentioned previously in "How Weed Works", under normal circumstances our brains produce and distribute inhibitory neurotransmitters such as GABA. These control the release of chemicals such as Dopamine in the system so that the amount being released is appropriate for the circumstances. This system is again represented here by cats and dogs.


And again, this is roughly how the system should operate under normal circumstances:
Inhibitory transmitters prevent the release of dopamine.
Normally, some, but not all, of the available dopamine is being released. Just enough for the brain and body to function properly. The remainder is unable to escape into the synaptic cleft due to the presence of the inhibitory neurotransmitters.

Now, another important neurotransmitter to know about here is glutamate, which is a general excitatory transmitter, and the most common one in mammals. It's released from one cell, triggers the next cell, and continues the transmission of the nervous impulse.


The signal arrives through the nerve to the synapse. Glutamate is present in the end of the pre-synaptic cell, and does not travel with the impulse. 

Triggered by the arrival of glutamate at a binding site, the second nerve fires.

Remember our discussion about synapses? Glutamate is one of the rocks you chuck at your little brother's head. The lazy bastard.

Both the glutamate-signaling and dopamine-control systems are interrupted by the presence of alcohol in the body, and it happens quickly. Alcohol's small size allows the molecule to easily cross the blood-brain barrier and begin to interact with the brain almost immediately upon consumption, as it is absorbed in the mouth, stomach AND in your guts.

Unlike THC, which simply prevents the release of the inhibitory transmitters responsible for controlling the release of dopamine, alcohol causes the GABA inhibitors to make them extremely inhibitory, so that little or no dopamine is released.


Elsewhere, alcohol (due to it's size and shape: blame the hydroxyl group) ends up binding to glutamate reception sites. This in turn prevents the reception of glutamate by the post-synaptic cell and as such it never receives the signal necessary to fire, stopping the impulse.


The end result? The whole brain is unable to function properly. The areas which suffer the most however are those related to impulse control and self-awareness (The frontal lobe), memory creation, emotions (both in the temporal lobe) and eventually one's motor skills and the entire limbic system.  You are LITERALLY incapable of acting like a functional human being.

Here's a lovely breakdown from How Things Work:
  1. Euphoria (Blood Alcohol Content = 0.03 to 0.12 percent)
    • They become more self-confident or daring.
    • Their attention span shortens.
    • They may look flushed.
    • Their judgement is not as good -- they may say the first thought that comes to mind, rather than an appropriate comment for the given situation.
    • They have trouble with fine movements, such as writing or signing their name.
  2. Excitement (BAC = 0.09 to 0.25 percent)
    • They become sleepy.
    • They have trouble understanding or remembering things (even recent events).
    • They do not react to situations as quickly (if they spill a drink they may just stare at it).
    • Their body movements are uncoordinated.
    • They begin to lose their balance easily.
    • Their vision becomes blurry.
    • They may have trouble sensing things (hearing, tasting, feeling, etc.).
  3. Confusion (BAC = 0.18 to 0.30 percent)
    • They are confused -- might not know where they are or what they are doing.
    • They are dizzy and may stagger.
    • They may be highly emotional -- aggressive, withdrawn or overly affectionate.
    • They cannot see clearly.
    • They are sleepy.
    • They have slurred speech.
    • They have uncoordinated movements (trouble catching an object thrown to them).
    • They may not feel pain as readily as a sober person.
  4. Stupor (BAC = 0.25 to 0.4 percent)
    • They can barely move at all.
    • They cannot respond to stimuli.
    • They cannot stand or walk.
    • They may vomit.
    • They may lapse in and out of consciousness.
  5. Coma (BAC = 0.35 to 0.50 percent)
    • They are unconscious.
    • Their reflexes are depressed (i.e. their pupils do not respond appropriately to changes in light).
    • They feel cool (lower-than-normal body temperature).
    • Their breathing is slower and more shallow.
    • Their heart rate may slow.
    • They may die.
  6. Death (BAC more than 0.50 percent) - The person usually stops breathing and dies.
When you're high, you think everyone knows, but they don't. When you're drunk, you think no one notices, but everyone knows.

The Journal of Neuroscience reported in April, 2008 that the presence of alcohol in one's system dampened one's ability to detect potential threats and increased activity in areas associated with reward and positive emotions. Although this particular study focused mainly on social drinkers, the activation of these reward pathways indicates that all drinkers have similar reactions in terms of which particular regions of the brain are affected. In alcoholics demonstrate heightened responses in these reward centers, especially when compared to a similar demographic of non-alcoholics.

There are some benefits to consuming certain types of alcohol, like red wine, but only when used in moderation (1 standard serving/day at most) and when combined with a healthy diet. There are no advantages, whatsoever, to getting drunk other than enjoyment, and even then, when you drink to excess other people suffer because of it. Don't drink to excess, boys and girls, it makes me hate you.

Plus, you know, there's always this:

Click to embiggen.

Edit: Allison Morris of OnlineEducation.net has created a great infographic about binge drinking and their tomfoolery. Go check it out.

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