Does Drinking Alcohol Kill Brain Cells?

iStock
iStock

Watch someone after they’ve had a few drinks, and you’ll find clear evidence that alcohol does something to their brain. They stumble, slur their words, lose control of their emotions, and forget things. 

Some people have tried to explain this behavior as the aftermath of cell death caused by alcohol. Often, it’s packaged as a neat factoid like “Three beers kill 10,000 brain cells.”

But is this true? No. But alcohol does damage some of your 86 billion brain cells, or neurons, which send electrical and chemical messages within the brain and between it and other parts of the body. 

Ethyl alcohol (the kind found in boozy beverages, also known as ethanol) can kill cells and microorganisms. That’s what makes it an effective antiseptic. Fortunately, when you drink alcoholic beverages, your body tries not to let all of that ethanol roam around unchecked. Enzymes in your liver convert it first info acetaldehyde (which is highly toxic) and then into acetate, which is broken down into water and carbon dioxide and eliminated by your body.

The liver can only work so fast, though, processing about 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits per hour. If you’re knocking drinks back fast enough that your liver can’t keep up, the excess alcohol hangs out in the blood and travels through the body until it can be processed. 

When this alcohol reaches the brain, it doesn’t kill the cells. What it does is inhibit the communication between dendrites, or branching connections at the ends of neurons that send and receive information between neurons, in the cerebellum, a part of the brain involved in motor coordination. This poor communication results in some of the typical impairments of intoxication. 

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that alcohol, even when applied directly to neurons, didn’t kill them. It just interfered with the way they transmit information. Specifically, the researchers showed that alcohol causes certain receptors on neurons to manufacture steroids that inhibit memory formation. 

Some alcoholics can experience neuron death as part of a brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. In these cases, the evidence again suggests that the disease and cell death aren’t caused by the alcohol itself, but a B1 (or thiamine) deficiency and general malnutrition that often go hand in hand with alcoholism. 

For moderate drinkers, a number of studies from the last 15 years suggest that, far from killing brain cells, a little tipple is actually associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia. 

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

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