Alcohol is a drug that suppresses the central nervous system. It slows down the functions of the brain, impacting the way you think, feel, and act. There is no safe amount of alcohol for brain health. 

Alcohol and the brain

Alcohol is classified as a depressive drug because it slows down communication pathways in the brain. At the time of drinking, alcohol use can increase the risk of injury from falls, assault, road crashes and drowning. In the long-term, alcohol can cause brain impairment which can lead to a range of problems. 

Short term effects
Long term effects
  • Impaired judgement, coordination and balance 
  • Impulsive behaviour
  • Mood changes
  • Slurred and confused speech
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Memory blackouts

Learn more about short term harms.

Learn more about long term health effects. 

Under 18s should not drink alcohol

Alcohol can harm the developing brain

The brain goes through important changes during puberty and continues to develop until around age 25, making it more sensitive to damage from alcohol.

Exposure to alcohol while the brain is still developing can lead to long term emotional problems and difficulty with learning, planning and memory.

Health experts recommend that children and people under 18 should not drink alcohol to reduce the risk of injury and other harms to health.

Learn more

How does alcohol affect the brain?

Alcohol reaches all areas of the brain. Learn more about how different parts of the brain are affected by alcohol and how this can impact the way you think, feel and act. 

  • ​​​​​The most immediate effects of alcohol are on the frontal lobes which can make you feel more talkative, less inhibited, and more confident. 
  • Like many drugs, alcohol also stimulates receptors in the brain that release dopamine, the chemical responsible for pleasure. This tricks your body into feeling pleasure and associating drinking alcohol with positive feelings.
  • The more you drink, the less dopamine your body releases, and this can lead to prolonged feelings of low mood.

  • Alcohol interferes with receptors in the hippocampus that can prevent memory formation.
  • Alcohol-related blackouts are gaps in a person’s memory where the brain temporarily blocks the transfer of memories from short-term memory to long-term storage. 
  • When a person experiences a ‘blackout’ while drinking, the brain continues to process information but is incapable of forming new memories. 

  • Alcohol affects the cerebellum which controls balance and coordination, and the medulla which handles automatic functions such as breathing, consciousness and body temperature.
  • By acting on these areas of the brain, alcohol induces sleepiness, and can slow breathing, coordination and reaction times.
  • These effects increase the risk of injury including, falls, assault, road crashes, and drowning.

  • The brainstem, or medulla, controls vomiting. There is an area of receptors called the “chemoreceptor trigger zone“.
  • This zone can sense if a toxic substance like alcohol is in the blood and sends a signal to the stomach to vomit as a protective action. 
  • Vomiting is not a reaction many people experience immediately when drinking. 


  • Alcohol can cause a complete depression of activity in the cerebral cortex leading to a loss of all thought, speech, and motor control.
  • Loss of consciousness caused by alcohol is a long-term risk factor for dementia.3

  • Alcohol affects the frontal cortex which controls judgement, thinking, decision-making, and risk-taking behaviour. 
  • This means that young people, who are still developing the skills to make good decisions, are at increased risk of harm when alcohol causes impaired judgement.  

  • When the hypothalamus and amygdala are affected by alcohol, it can make it harder to control emotions.
  • Alcohol stimulates the release of dopamine from the hypothalamus which creates pleasurable feelings in the short term.
  • The more you drink, the less dopamine your body releases, and this can lead to prolonged feelings of low mood sleep problems and increased anxiety

Brain development during pregnancy and breastfeeding

A baby’s brain begins developing early and continues throughout pregnancy. There's no safe time or amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy. Women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should not drink alcohol.

A baby’s brain keeps developing after its born, which means the brain is still sensitive to damage from alcohol. Choosing to not drink alcohol is the best option for a mother and baby when breastfeeding. 

Learn more

  1. Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. National Health and Medical Research Council. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra
  2. Australian Government. Department of Health and Aged Care. What are the effects of alcohol? Available:
  3. Kivimäki M, Singh-Manoux A, Batty GD, et al. Association of Alcohol-Induced Loss of Consciousness and Overall Alcohol Consumption With Risk for Dementia. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(9):e2016084. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.16084 

Page last updated12 October 2023