SCIENCE: Rutgers experts discuss effects, dangers of alcohol


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Photo by Chloe Coffman |

Photo Illustration | Alcohol depresses centers in the brain that are responsible for processing emotions and thinking. It is also a sedative, which impacts motor function and can, in high enough levels, cause a coma or death.


Alcohol-related issues, especially on college campuses, receive widespread national attention because of the large number of people they affect.

In 2013, 39 percent of college students between ages 18 and 22 engaged in binge drinking, defined as five or more drinks on an occasion, in the past month compared with 33.4 percent of other people around the same age, according to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The institute also estimated that about 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder, which is defined as a medical condition that occurs when a person’s alcohol use causes distress or harm.

Alcoholic beverages are known for their effect on behavior and state of mind. Helene White, a distinguished professor in the Department of Sociology and the Center for Alcohol Studies, explained the science behind alcohol’s effects on the body.

The most common alcoholic beverages are beer, wine and liquor, which includes drinks such as vodka or tequila, White said. There are roughly equal amounts of alcohol in one 12-ounce beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine, and one 1.5-ounce shot of liquor.

The alcohol that people drink is ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol. Ethanol is a psychoactive substance that acts as a depressant on the central nervous system, she said.

Alcohol’s impact on an individual depends on the blood alcohol level, which measures how much alcohol is in the bloodstream. This is determined by the quantity of alcohol consumed, body weight, sex, amount of food in the stomach, the rate of drinking and the length of time the alcohol is consumed, she said.

Alcohol produces its effects by depressing certain centers in the brain that are responsible for thinking, feeling and behaving, said Robert Pandina, director of the Center for Alcohol Studies. 

“The initial effect of alcohol at relatively low doses is to cause individuals to feel excited, because it inhibits inhibitory centers of the brain, therefore causing some initial disinhibition in emotions and feelings,” he said.

As alcohol levels rise in the blood and circulates through the bloodstream, alcohol begins to express its sedative effects. The sedative effects cause the depression of motor reflexes, a depression of emotional behavior and a disruption in thinking and judgment, he said.

If alcohol levels rise significantly in the bloodstream and the brain, it begins to depress centers of the brain that are responsible for respiration. This can also cause coma and death, which is what happens in alcohol poisoning, he said.

“At very high levels alcohol is a toxin, and just below that it can be used as an anesthetic. In fact, prior to the advent of things like ether, it was not uncommon for alcohol to be used in surgical procedures because it does cause unconsciousness,” Pandina said.

The effects of alcohol are particularly pronounced in more complex tasks. An example would be driving a car, which requires an individual to divide their attention between operating the vehicle and paying attention to the outside environment, he said.

The more difficult the task, the more likely it is that alcohol will have a significant effect on the behavior. Alcohol’s effect is more likely to disrupt difficult tasks, causing an individual to be impaired and unable to perform that task, he said.

“First and foremost, drinking to the point where you lose control over your faculties is clearly irresponsible," he said. "Any drinking and driving would certainly be considered to be irresponsible, because you’re putting yourself and others at risk because of the inhibiting effects of alcohol on behaviors required to operate a motor vehicle.”

The important rule for responsible drinking is to drink in a way that keeps the blood alcohol level fairly low. It is also important to avoid drinking large amounts of alcohol in any single setting, he said.

It may be hard to gauge blood alcohol level, because it is not only related to the amount of drinking and the type of beverages consumed, but also related to body weight, gender and other individual factors, White said.

There are general guidelines for responsible drinking. The standard definition of a drink used in these guidelines refers to one 12-ounce glass of beer.

“If you weigh between 160 and 180 pounds and you are male, you probably shouldn’t drink more than one drink every hour or hour and a half. If you drink more than one drink per hour and a half, and you drink more than three or four in a four hour period, that’s above a (safe) level,” Pandina said.

In addition to differences in alcohol tolerance caused by gender and body weight, there are also racial differences. It is more prevalent among Asian-American and Native American populations to lack the gene that produces the enzyme that can process alcohol, he said.

This genetic anomaly leads to a flushing response or an allergic reaction to alcohol. Even small amounts of alcohol will cause this response that manifests as purplish-reddish blushing on the face, as well as discomfort and nausea, he said.

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George Xie is a Rutgers Business School sophomore majoring in finance. He is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum. You can see more on Twitter @georgefxie.


George Xie

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