Alcohol, specifically ethanol, is a potent central nervous system depressant, with a range of side effects. The amount and circumstances of consumption play a large part in determining the extent of intoxication; for example, consuming alcohol after a heavy meal is less likely to produce visible signs of intoxication than consumption on an empty stomach. Hydration also plays a role, especially in determining the extent of hangovers. The concentration of alcohol in blood is usually measured in terms of the blood alcohol content.
Alcohol has a biphasic effect on the body, which is to say that its effects change over time. Initially, alcohol generally produces feelings of relaxation and cheerfulness, but further consumption can lead to blurred vision and coordination problems. Cell membranes are highly permeable to alcohol, so once alcohol is in the bloodstream it can diffuse into nearly every biological tissue of the body. After excessive drinking, unconsciousness can occur and extreme levels of consumption can lead to alcohol poisoning and death (a concentration in the blood stream of 0.45% will kill half of those affected). Death can also occur through asphyxiation by vomit. An appropriate first aid response to an unconscious, drunken person is to place them in the recovery position.
Some people's DNA code calls for a different acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, resulting in a more potent alcohol dehydrogenase. This leads to a buildup of acetaldehyde after alcohol consumption, causing the alcohol flush reaction with hangover-like symptoms such as flushing, nausea, and dizziness. These people are unable to drink much alcohol before feeling sick, and are therefore less susceptible to alcoholism. This adverse reaction can be artificially reproduced by drugs such as disulfiram, which are used to treat chronic alcoholism by inducing an acute sensitivity to alcohol.
Alcohol has also been linked with lowered inhibitions, though it is unclear to what degree this is chemical versus psychological as studies with placebos can often duplicate the social effects of alcohol at low to moderate doses. Some studies have suggested that intoxicated people have much greater control over their behavior than is generally recognized, though they have a reduced ability to correctly evaluate the consequences of their behavior. Behavioral changes associated with drunkenness are, to some degree, contextual. A scientific study found that people drinking in a social setting significantly and dramatically altered their behavior immediately after the first sip of alcohol, well before the chemical itself could have filtered through to the nervous system. Likewise, people consuming non-alcoholic drinks often exhibit drunk-like behavior on a par with their alcohol-drinking companions even though their own drinks contained no alcohol whatsoever.
Areas of the brain responsible for planning and motor learning are dulled. A related effect, caused by even low levels of alcohol, is the tendency for people to become more animated in speech and movement. This is due to increased metabolism in areas of the brain associated with movement, such as the nigrostriatal pathway. This causes reward systems in the brain to become more active, and combined with reduced understanding of the consequences of their behavior, can induce people to behave in an uncharacteristically loud and cheerful manner.
During the absorption phase, individuals compare their perceived state with their condition before consuming alcohol. They tend to over estimate the effects of alcohol.
During the elimination phase, they tend to underestimate their state of alcohol impairment.
Often, after much alcohol has been consumed, it is possible to experience Vertigo the sense that the room is spinning (sometimes referred to as 'The Spins'. This is associated with abnormal eye movements called nystagmus, specifically positional alcohol nystagmus.
However, when alcohol gets in to the bloodstream it dilutes it, reducing its density. When this blood reaches the cupula, the cupula becomes less dense. The endolymph surrounding it, on the other hand, is not connected directly to the circulatory system, and keeps the same density. Thus, the cupula becomes less dense than the surrounding fluid and is forced upwards, creating a false impulse just as if the head was rotating in the opposite direction. Why can alcohol cause vertigo? The abnormal nerve impulses tell the brain that the body is rotating, causing disorientation and making the eyes spin round to compensate.
A common after-effect of ethanol intoxication is the unpleasant sensation known as hangover, which is partly due to the dehydrating effect of ethanol. Hangover symptoms include dry mouth, headache, nausea, and sensitivity to movement, light and noise. These symptoms are partly due to the toxic acetaldehyde produced from alcohol by alcohol dehydrogenase, and partly due to general dehydration. The dehydration portion of the hangover effect can be mitigated by drinking plenty of water between and after alcoholic drinks. Other components of the hangover are thought to come from the various other chemicals in an alcoholic drink, such as the tannins in red wine, and the results of various metabolic processes of alcohol in the body, but few scientific studies have attempted to verify this. Consuming water between drinks and before bed is the best way to prevent or lessen the effects of a hangover.
A rare complication of acute alcohol ingestion is Wernicke encephalopathy, a disorder of thiamine metabolism. If not treated with thiamine, Wernicke encephalopathy can progress to Korsakoff psychosis, which is irreversible.
Chronic alcohol ingestion over many years can produce atrophy of the vermis, which is the part of the cerebellum responsible for coordinating gait; vermian atrophy produces the classic gait findings of alcohol intoxication even when its victim is not inebriated.
At higher dose ranges, other targets also become important. Alcohol at high doses acts as an antagonist of the NMDA receptor, and since the NMDA receptor is involved in learning and memory, this action is thought to be responsible for the "memory blanks" that can occur at extremely high doses of alcohol. People with a family history of alcoholism may exhibit genetic differences in the response of their NMDA glutamate receptors as well as the ratios of GABA-A subtypes in their brain. Alteration of NMDA receptor numbers in chronic alcoholics is likely to be responsible for some of the symptoms seen in delirium tremens during severe alcohol withdrawal, such as delirium and hallucinations. Other targets such as sodium channels can also be affected by high doses of alcohol, and alteration in the numbers of these channels in chronic alcoholics is likely to be responsible for the convulsions that can occur in acute alcohol withdrawal, as well as other effects such as cardiac arrhythmia. Also chronic NMDA receptor blockade may produce apoptosis in neurons which is likely to be one of the factors involved in producing the brain damage seen in long-term alcoholic patients. Other targets that are affected by alcohol include cannabinoid, opioid and dopamine receptors, although it is unclear whether alcohol affects these directly or if they are affected by downstream consequences of the GABA/NMDA effects.
Many of us have noticed that bees or yellow jackets cannot fly well after having drunk the juice of overripe fruits or berries; bears have been seen to stagger and fall down after eating fermented honey; and birds often crash or fly haphazardly while intoxicated on ethanol that occurs naturally as free-floating microorganisms convert vegetable carbohydrates to alcohol.Birds may have even been killed by excessive consumption of alcohol.
In Sweden, drunken moose have been observed. The theory is that they had eaten large amounts of overly ripe berries.
As a result, animal and insect models are fairly attractive. Heberlein et al. conducted studies of fruit fly intoxication at the University of California, San Francisco in 2004. The brains and nervous systems of bees bear similarities to those of humans, so honey bees are used in studies of the effect of alcohol. The value of antabuse (disulfiram) as a treatment for alcoholism has been tested using a bee model.
Ulrike Heberlein's group at University of California, San Francisco has used fruit flies as models of human inebriation and even identified genes that seem to be responsible for alcohol tolerance accumulation (believed to be associated with veisalgia, or hangover), and produced genetically engineered strains that do not develop alcohol tolerance
University of Minnesota Biology Professor PZ Myers is using zebrafish to study ethanol teratogenesis and ethanol gametogenesis. A wide range of other animal models have been used, including primate, mouse, and rat models.