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Alcoholic blackout is the equivalent of scrambling your memory

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

It used to be believed that the reason heavily intoxicated people had “blackouts,” or episodes of not remembering what they did or said under the influence of alcohol, was that booze killed off brain cells. Now researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis say that is not quite the case.

They have, instead, identified brain cells and function that allow extremely intoxicated people to perform complex tasks such as dancing, debating or even driving home without having any recollection of it the next day.

The study, published July 6 in the Journal of Neuroscience , explains that the temporary amnesia individuals experience during an episode of heavy drinking is not due to brain cell death but rather to an interference by alcohol in the brain receptors that produce steroids. They are essential to memory formation, and when they misfire, the memory “data” gets completely scrambled.

“It’s been known for a long time that changes in the way neurons connect with each other underlies the ability to learn new things, and people thought alcohol blocks memory function,” says senior investigator Dr. Chuck Zorumski, the Samuel B. Guze Professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University.

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Now scientists have figured out the exact pathway of interference.

Once a person has even one blackout, it’s likely others will follow, Zorumski explains, and that could lead to disaster. “If you drink enough alcohol, you will do things you won’t even realize you did the next day,” he says. “You will have conversations with people you won’t remember and put yourself in dangerous situations. You will get yourself in trouble, not remember and it may be the police explaining it to you.”

This is because other parts of the brain, those not responsible for memory formation, are still online. You don’t forget to walk, talk and drive, even if some of your motor skills are wobbly executing these activities. You will walk – with a stumble; you will talk – with a slur. Your driving skills will be impaired, but a more fundamental, long-term memory for these tasks will continue to operate. The problem is that these skills operate largely on auto-pilot, and that means you, too, will essentially be on auto-pilot. Your judgment and thinking will be impaired, your usual emotional coping skills and restraint will be gone, leaving you very vulnerable – and unable to learn from the mistakes you make.

Scientists also uncovered that stress and certain drugs act in a similar way to alcohol in interfering with memory formation. Additionally, a combination of alcohol and sedating drugs, such as Xanax, is more likely to cause blackouts than alcohol alone, the study reported.

Some medical situations, however, warrant a blackout, such as extreme pain in a catastrophic accident, or needing to undergo a medical procedure. Some of the anesthesia drugs administered immediately before minor or major surgeries cause a similar lapse in memory, which, in this case, may be very welcome.