Why heavy drinkers struggle to concentrate: Alcohol blocks a chemical in the brain that focuses our attention, study finds

  • Researchers found a chemical in the brain responsible for our ability to focus
  • They found that alcohol works to block this chemical and make it harder to focus
  • The chemical is called nonrepinephrine but acute exposure to alcohol blocks it 

Drinking a lot of booze makes it harder to concentrate as alcohol blocks a chemical in the brain responsible for focusing our attention, a new study revealed.

Researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Centre set out to explain the process in the brain that causes alcohol to make someone less focused.

A chemical called norepinephrine is used by the brain to help us pay attention but ‘acute exposure to alcohol inhibits this signal in the brain’, the team found. 

Drinking a lot of booze makes it harder to concentrate as alcohol blocks a chemical in the brain responsible for focusing our attention, a new study revealed

While it is known that alcohol affects the brain’s motor control, leading to people being unsteady on their feet when they walk, this is the first time that research has shown that boozing affects a person’s attention span.

Study lead, Professor Martin Paukert, said that when attention is needed for a task, norepinephrine is secreted by a brain structure called the locus coeruleus.

‘When we want to focus on something, or when we stand up from a chair and become active, a brain stem nucleus releases a chemical called norepinephrine.’  

Dr Paukert and his team showed that the norepinephrine attaches to receptors on cells called Bergmann glia. This leads to a calcium rise in these cells.

Bergmann glia are astrocytes (caretaker or supporting cells) in the cerebellum, a region near the brain stem. 

The study found alcohol leads to a rise in calcium in the brain which then in turn affects cognitive function – including the ability to focus.

‘To our knowledge, this paper is the first description that norepinephrine in mammals directly binds to receptors on the Bergmann glia and activates them through calcium elevation,’ Paukert said. 

Persons under the influence of alcohol are off-balance when they walk, the researchers said, so they investigated if the same process behind a lack of focus was responsible for a lack of balance.

The researchers expected to find that the inhibition of calcium rise in Bergmann glia would also explain this. It didn’t. 

Researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Centre set out to explain the process in the brain that causes alcohol to make someone less focused

‘The calcium elevation in Bergmann glia is not critical for motor coordination, which is somewhat surprising because the cerebellum is classically known for its role in motor control,’ Dr. Paukert said. 

‘Our findings are in line with current suggestions that the cerebellum also plays critical roles in non-motor functions, and that astrocytes are not only supporting basic brain maintenance, but they may actively participate in cognitive function.’ 

Study co-author Manzoor Bhat said: ‘The findings will open up new avenues of defining the brain circuits that ultimately determine the state of alertness.’

He said it would also help us understand ‘how chemicals that interfere with those circuits essentially dampen this inherent vigilance system of the brain.’

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.


Alcoholism is the most severe form of alcohol abuse and involves the inability to manage drinking habits.

It is organised into three categories: mild, moderate and severe. Each category has various symptoms and can cause harmful side effects.

If left untreated, any type of alcohol abuse can spiral out of control. 

Individuals struggling with alcoholism often feel as though they cannot function normally without alcohol.

This can lead to a wide range of issues and impact professional goals, personal matters, relationships and overall health.

Sometimes the warning signs of alcohol abuse are very noticeable. Other times, they can take longer to surface. 

When alcohol addiction is discovered in its early stages, the chance for a successful recovery increases significantly.

Common signs of alcoholism include:

  • Being unable to control alcohol consumption
  • Craving alcohol when you’re not drinking
  • Putting alcohol above personal responsibilities
  • Feeling the need to keep drinking more
  • Spending a substantial amount of money on alcohol
  • Behaving differently after drinking

Short-term effects of alcohol abuse can be just as dangerous as long-term effects. 

For instance, drinking can impact your reaction time, causing you to have slow reflexes and coordination.

That’s why drinking and driving is extremely dangerous. Getting behind the wheel of a car can alter your perception of speed and distance, putting yourself and others at risk.

Several short-term effects of alcohol abuse may produce:

  • Slow reaction time
  • Poor reflexes
  • Reduce brain activity
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Restlessness

Additionally, consuming too much alcohol can affect your long-term health. Some side effects may lay dormant for years before they surface.

Because of this, professional medical care is required for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Long-term health conditions caused by alcohol:

  • Brain defects 
  • Liver disease
  • Diabetes complications
  • Heart problems
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Vision damage
  • Bone loss 

Treatment for Alcoholism 

There are different forms of treatment available based on frequency and severity of alcohol abuse. 

Recovering from alcohol addiction is a process that continues long after rehab. 

It takes commitment to practice and apply the techniques you learn in rehab, counseling, support groups and other types of therapy.

Although every individual will have their own recovery plan that’s tailored to their specific needs, treatment generally follows a structure.

Alcohol treatment is broken into three sections, consisting of:


The first stage in alcohol addiction recovery is detoxification. This phase should be completed with the help of medical professionals due to the potential for serious, uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Many times, individuals are given a medication to help alleviate the painful side effects of a withdrawal.


There are two types of rehabilitation that help treat alcoholism: inpatient rehab and outpatient rehab. Inpatient rehabs are intensive treatment programs that require you to check into a facility for a certain period of time, usually 30, 60 or 90 days. Outpatient rehab allows individuals to participate in a recovery program while continuing with their daily life. Talk with your doctor about treatment options to determine which form of recovery will best fit your needs.


The recovery process doesn’t end with the completion of rehab. Long-term sobriety requires ongoing therapy and may entail support groups, counseling and other recovery resources. These will make sure you maintain sobriety and continue on a happy, healthy path for months and years to come.

Source: Alcohol Rehab Guide

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