MadSci Network: General Biology

Re: How does and why does alcohol do what it does to one's body?

Date: Sun Apr 30 15:49:16 2000
Posted By: Phyllis Pugh, Post-doc/Fellow, Neurobiology, Medical College of Ohio
Area of science: General Biology
ID: 956346619.Gb

Hi Brittany,

That's a pretty big set of questions that you ask there. I think that we need to break it down a little bit, and most of what I will give you are some excellent online resources for you to followup on the various pieces of information.

First, you can find a LOT of information at Neuroscience Resources for Kids-Alcohol. I highly recommend visiting that as well as the parent site, as I believe you will find many of your answers there. I used it extensively to help answer the parts of your questions that I have answered. The links from there will answer most of your questions on the target organs of alcohol and its effects on the body.

From a previous MadSci question I answered (http:/ /

What we commonly call alcohol is actually ethanol (or ethyl alcohol), which is primarily important because "wood alcohol," or methanol, is a potent poison. [As my high school chemistry teacher once said, "Methanol will kill you in hours; ethanol takes a number of years."]

The exact mode of action of alcohol is not completely understood. We do know that alcohol has some anaesthetic properties, and that may result from it's directly interfering with the binding of certain neurotransmitters, especially acetylcholine. However, it is most likely acetaldehyde (or ethanal), a primary metabolite of ethanol, that causes most of the problems. Acetaldehyde is known to react with dopamine yielding salsolinol and also to react with tryptamine producing tetrahydroharman. Both of those products have psychotropic activity. Since dopamine is also a precursor to noradrenalin (which acts in motor pathways), dopamine depletion may also be involved. Lastly, often forgotten is the fact that ethanol is a desiccating agent; that means that it removes water from systems. Many of the unpleasant effects of alcohol are likely to come from the fact that various parts of the body are dealing with dehydration.

The male/female body differences in alchol processing come from several factors:

You can find out more about male/female brain differences at Neuroscience Resources for Kids-Gender Differences.

I hope these help you along the way to writing your position paper. You might also check out information at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcholism which is part of the National Institutes on Health, as well as the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. Your library might have some good books on the subject, especially something like the Statistics on alcohol, drug & tobacco use : a selection of statistical charts, graphs, and tables about alcohol, drug, and tobacco use from a variety of published sources with explanatory comments, Timothy L. Gall and Daniel M. Lucas, editors.

Good luck.

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