How alcohol slows your reflexes down: the science of DWI

Rochester has seen a rash of DWIs making headlines lately and as a result, it seems like a good time to review the science behind alcohol’s influence on the nervous system. Sure it is well-known that alcohol is a depressant and can be deadly if an intoxicated person gets behind the wheel, but did you know that slower reaction times are the result of an overload of a part of your brain?

“Alcohol slows down the central nervous system,” said Karen Pelc, coordinator of IMPACT, a Substance and Drug Education & Prevention Program at Rochester Institute of Technology. “When individuals drink too much too quickly it can cause the heart, breathing and brain function to stop.”

Interestingly, researchers have found that the brain’s frontal lobes are greatly affected by alcohol intoxication. The primary functions of the frontal lobe include the ability to distinguish and choose between good and bad actions and the ability to recognize impending consequences resulting from those actions. Both of these functions are altered once alcohol reaches the brain because it slows down communication between the neurons sending signals to your body. This fact can explain why many DWI incidents involve drivers unaware that their actions are dangerous and merit consequences.

Furthermore, alcohol increases gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) activity which controls the time it takes a person to respond to a certain situation. In the case of drunk driving this is a major issue because as GABA activity increases, brain activity slows down. The driver will not be able to make a quick enough decision to avoid an accident, hence why our society is told not to drink and drive.

The way alcohol affects the nervous system is not something you would typically think about while enjoying an alcoholic beverage, but it’s important in understanding why those intoxicated act the way they do. DWIs are not taken lightly in today’s society, so before you decide to drive home after throwing back a few beers, you may want to take a moment to think about the effects those beers will have on the way your body functions.