Getting Drunk Can Cause Blackouts That Seem Unreal

Too Much Alcohol Blocks New Memories

Woman on Phone
Blackout Can Be Embarrassing and Dangerous. © Getty Images

Have you ever drank so much alcohol that you could not remember parts from the night before? Maybe you cannot remember how you got home.

Perhaps your friends tell you that you were the life of the party, dancing the night away or you woke up somewhere you wished you had not. Or, even worse, maybe you wound up in jail and you have no idea why you were arrested?

If this sounds familiar, then chances are you experienced an alcohol-induced blackout.

Blackouts can last a few minutes or for several hours. They can occur in females and males, all people, young and old. Blackouts are real.

Not Just a Convenient Excuse

Some people who have never had an alcohol-related blackout do not believe that they actually happen. They do not see how someone could carry on a detailed argument or behave outrageously and not remember a thing about it. They think blackouts are convenient excuses. But medicine and science tell us that blackouts are real.

For many years, it was believed that drinking too much alcohol was killing brain cells or the neurons in the brain that receive signals, and that was the cause of memory loss.

Now we know that too much alcohol in the body can trigger a chemical reaction in the brain that blocks the brain's ability to learn. The brain cells continue to process information and communicate with each other but are not capable of forming new memories.

The Science Behind Alcohol and Formation of Memories

A person cannot remember something that the brain did not record. Alcohol interferes with receptors in the brain that carry signals between neurons or brain cells. Alcohol affects some brain cells differently than others—it can inhibit some and later activate others—causing them to manufacture steroids that prevent memory formation.

The steroids produced by the alcohol-affected brain cells can reduce the strength of the brain's connections between brain cells which is critical for learning and memory. The steroids interfere with synaptic plasticity or the brain's communication system of passing signals between cells. This communication system is a necessary component of memory formation.

Drugs Can Cause Blackouts, Too

It takes a lot of alcohol to cause a blackout. Research shows that a moderate amount of alcohol does not affect the brain. However, combining alcohol with other drugs is much more likely to cause blackouts than alcohol alone or drugs alone.

Blackouts Signal a Drinking Problem

Blackout drinking is also considered a symptom of an alcohol problem. If you frequently drink to the point that you do not remember events from the night before, you may want to take an online quiz to see if your drinking has reached the level of alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence.

If you find that you have developed a drinking problem, you may want to get help in cutting down or quitting altogether.

Sources:

Tokuda K, et al "Ethanol Enhances Neurosteroidogenesis in Hippocampal Pyramidal Neurons by Paradoxical NMDA Receptor Activation," The Journal of Neuroscience, July 6, 2011.

White, A, et al "Experiential Aspects of Alcohol-Induced Blackouts Among College Students." American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. 2004.

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