Are you wrecking your brain? Chilling pictures reveal shocking effects of alcohol, cigarettes and even caffeine on the mind
What exactly are you doing to your brain when you drink alcohol or coffee? If you think they can’t be doing much harm, the pictures on the opposite page may come as a shock.
They show that the effects of long-term and heavy use can be just as striking as the damage caused by illegal drugs such as cannabis or cocaine.
They can even result in a pattern of ‘holes’ in the brain similar to those caused by Alzheimer’s disease. The images come from a remarkable new book – Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.
Undeniable: Caffeine is widely seen as relatively harmless – but these drastic images will make even habitual coffee drinkers rethink
Already a bestseller in the U.S., it was written by neuroscientist and psychiatrist Daniel G. Amen, who is professor of psychiatry-and human behaviour at the University of California, Irvine, and director of the Amen Clinics. In the book, he explains how behaviour such as anxiety, anger or impulsiveness could be related to the way specific areas in your brain work.
For the past 15 years he has been using scanning technology to assess brain activity in people with ‘psychological’ problems.
What these scans have shown is that often these problems are not actually psychological, but are biological – some area of the patient’s brain isn’t functioning well, but is instead under or over-active, he says.
Sometimes this ‘ malfunctioning’ can be due to substances, illegal or legal, which effectively shut down the blood supply to areas of the brain.
This reduces activity in these areas, and, depending on the area affected, this affects the patient’s behaviour.
The caffeine and nicotine scan opposite is of the chief executive of a large company whom Dr Amen knew socially.
‘He came to see me complaining of low energy and a difficulty concentrating,’ says Dr Amen.
‘A scan of his brain showed extensive damage. He denied heavy use of drugs or drink, but admitted to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day and drinking three pots of coffee.’
Just how much brain damage coffee or alcohol will cause in any individual varies hugely – some people can handle a lot while others are far more vulnerable, says Amen.
‘A cup of coffee a day or a couple of glasses of wine a week is no big deal, but eight cups or two glasses a day is too much for most people.’
As a result of his work, Dr Amen avoids any kind of stimulants.
‘When I was 16, I got drunk on a six-pack of Michelob beer and half a bottle of champagne and was sick for three days,’ he says.
‘After that I stayed away from alcohol. Now, because of what I’ve seen, I also avoid caffeine and diet soft drinks because they often contain caffeine.’
He also runs a programme in Californian schools to make children aware of what recreational drugs can do to their brains.
‘They don’t believe there could be a problem until they see the pictures and then their response is: “Omigod!” That can be enough for them to stop.’
Indeed, you might argue that those who want drug classifications loosened should also look closely at these scans.
The scanner that Dr Amen uses is known as SPECT (photon emission computerised tomography) and is specially useful for showing brain activity.