The Neurobiology of Alcoholism

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Developed by Garry Cooper, LCSW

General Course Description

Advances in neuroscience have sharpened our understanding of how alcohol affects the brain. This explosion of knowledge enables therapists to move their understanding and ways of talking about alcohol abuse with their clients away from the subjective values and fuzzy measurements that often fail to break through their denial. By bringing the latest scientific knowledge and clarity into their discussions, therapists can explain to clients and their families not just how alcohol affects behavior and relationships but also how it alters and damages the most basic architecture and functioning of the human brain on every level, from regions of the brain, to neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, and down to the most basic cellular level, where the manufacture of neurotransmitters and the brain cells which transmit and receive them are affected. The new knowledge also helps therapists more accurately diagnose and differentiate between alcohol use and abuse, and it can better inform therapists’ treatment decisions and recommendations.

This advanced level course has four parts. Part One offers an overview of how alcohol affects the brain and behavior and is useful for therapists and as a handout for clients. Part Two presents precise details on the neurochemistry of how alcohol affects the brain on cellular and regional levels. Part Three presents an overview of the pharmacology for alcoholism treatment and examines the promise of a new medication, baclofen. Part Four presents a balancing viewpoint to the course material by offering a harm reduction critique of warnings of permanent brain damage. Additional resources and references are provided for further study, but they are not part of the course.

Disclaimer: This course is purely educational and does not intend to serve as a license (or permission) to mental health professionals to prescribe or practice any of the approaches discussed in this course unless they fall within the scope of practice of your profession. Check with your licensing board about the scope of practice of your profession to make sure you practice within that scope. It also does not serve as a permission to title yourself in any specific way.

Educational Objectives

    This course will teach the participant to

  • Discuss the differences between Wernicke-Korsikoff dementia and alcohol-related dementia.
  • Describe the effect of alcohol on neurotransmitters.
  • Discuss the relationship between alcohol, neurogenesis and neurodegeneration.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness and limitations of various pharmacological interventions, including baclofen.
  • Describe the incidence of alcoholism.
  • Critique the conflicting research on whether the effects of alcohol create permanent or temporary brain damage.
  • Describe how alcohol’s effect on inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters leads to addiction, craving and withdrawal.


  • Crews, F. T. (2008). Alcohol-related neurodegeneration and recovery: mechanisms from animal models. Alcohol Research & Health, 31 (4), 377-388.
  • Mukherjee, S., Das, S. K., Vaidyanathan, K., & Vasudevan, D. M. (2008). Consequences of alcohol consumption on neurotransmitters-an overview. Current neurovascular research, 5 (4), 266-272.
  • Sullivan, E. V., Harris, R. A., & Pfefferbaum, A. (2010). Alcohol’s effects on brain and behavior. Alcohol Research & Health, 33 (1-2), 127-143.

Course Syllabus:

  • Incidence of alcoholism
  • Variables which affect alcohol’s effect on the brain
    • gender
    • age
    • amount of alcohol
    • length of time drinking
    • physical health
    • level of education
    • genetic background
    • nutrition
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
    • severe Wernicke’s encephalopathy
    • Korsakoff’s psychosis
    • commonalities and differences between Wernicke-Korsakoff, dementia, and alcohol-related effects
  • Alcohol’s effect on the brain’s neurochemistry
    • serotonin
    • dopamine
    • glutamate
    • production of neurotransmitters
    • cell adhesion
    • production of new brain cells and neurotransmitters
    • glial cells
    • oxidative stress
  • Alcohol’s effect on brain regions
    • hippocampus
    • limbic system
    • thalamus regions
    • executive functioning
    • visual-spatial functioning
    • right and left hemisphere
  • Tolerance, craving and withdrawal
    • neurobiological causes and consequences
    • inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters
  • Psychopharmacology
    • FDA approved medications
    • baclofen
    • the neurochemistry of how they work
  • Is alcohol-related brain damage permanent?
    • factors which influence the permanence or longevity
    • the harm reduction perspective
  • Additional resources
    • support groups and information for clients
    • further readings for therapists
CE Badge Created with Sketch. 7 CE

Cost: $69.00

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