Alcohol is a sedative that slows nearly all functions of the brain, including the part that forms and recalls memories. This area, called the hippocampus, is involved in all three kinds of memory formation:
Although the exact way the brain forms and recalls memories remains a mystery to scientists, the effects of certain experiences such as alcohol and drug abuse and traumatic brain injury are well documented. It is clear, for instance, that in some people the rapid intake of alcohol can cause two types of memory loss, or blackouts:
The formation of process memories is not impacted by intoxication. This is why a blacked-out person can carry on a conversation as long as it doesn’t involve remembering things that happened more than a few minutes prior. Alcohol seems to affect the ability of the brain to move memories of one type, into another level of storage. A person with fragmentary memory loss may have done something dangerous or embarrassing due to the effect alcohol has on impulse control and rational decision making, but their brain never moves that memory from short term to long term. Once they are reminded about what they did, that memory returns and is filed in the long term memory area. When a drinker experiences en bloc blackouts their brain fails to file any short term or long term memory of what they did.
People respond differently to alcohol as it relates to blackouts. It is believed that some people have a biological predisposition toward blackouts. This may be the result of purely hereditary factors or may be caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. Blackouts are also much more likely to occur when a person becomes intoxicated very quickly. There is something about rapid intoxication that greatly increases the likelihood of memory loss.
While recent studies have refuted the older idea that blackouts are a symptom of alcohol addiction, they are still extremely dangerous. Blackouts are definitely a symptom of binge drinking, and binge drinking often leads to alcoholism. But beyond the development of alcohol addiction over time, the following are immediate risks associated with alcohol-induced blackouts:
One thing is certain, if you have experienced memory loss due to drinking you are at risk in several ways. Our toll-free helpline is open all day and night and our counselors can answer any questions you have about alcohol addiction and treatment. Don’t let alcohol destroy your life. Call for information and help today.