JAN 17, 2018 5:30 AM PST

What Happens in the Brain During Blackout Drinking

Having a few drinks with friends after work, or ordering a glass or two of wine with a meal isn't a problem for most people. Alcohol, when used responsibly, can be an enjoyable part of any gathering. Binge drinking is quite another matter.

It's more common with younger adults and underage teens. Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as a short period of heavy drinking that raises the blood alcohol content (BAC) to 0.08g/dL. This amounts to four drinks for the average woman or five drinks for the average man, in less than two hours. When alcohol is consumed at this rate, the brain reacts, and the consequences can be hazardous.

Blackouts are not unusual in binge drinking. Blackout drinking is when a person has little or no memory of what happened after over a specified interval of time. There are two kinds of blackout drinking situations, fragmentary and en bloc. In fragmentary blackouts, the person remembers some of what happened during the time they were drinking, but the memories are in bits and pieces, like snapshots making up a collage, but with parts missing. En bloc blackouts happened when an entire block of time spent drinking is gone from a person's memory.

The speed at which drinking occurs is a factor in blackouts. When several alcoholic beverages are consumed in a very short period, the BAC spikes and this suppresses function in the hippocampus. Neurons in this region of the brain are responsible for turning short-term memories into long-term memories that remain in the person's conscious recall. When alcohol impacts this part of the brain, the events that happen do not get converted to long-term memories and, in a sense, evaporate as if they never occurred.

Alcohol impairs judgment, so when a binge results in a rapid rise in BAC, it's like a storm in the brain, where choices cannot be appropriately made, information is not readily retrievable because of memory disruptions, and there is little to no impulse control. A person who is intoxicated enough to cause a blackout is experiencing a form of amnesia. Once the alcohol has worn off, the stress of not being able to fully remember events can trigger panic and depression, because of the length of time the brain was unable to function correctly. This is in addition to dealing with any fallout from the binge such as an injury, inappropriate behavior and, usually, a vicious physical hangover including nausea, headache and other symptoms. A bad "morning after" is also related to the effect of alcohol on the brain, as it regulates the rest of the body and a binge drinking session stresses many of those systems.

Part of what makes a person vulnerable to blackouts is likely related to their genes. Certain genes have been found in people who have problems with alcohol in general, and alcoholics have a higher chance of experiencing blackouts. Women are more susceptible because they are often smaller than men, so it takes less alcohol to become intoxicated. Less water in the tissues of some smaller women and fewer enzymes in the gut to metabolize the alcohol are also factors. The video below includes additional information on blackout drinking. It's okay to celebrate, but to stay healthy and out of danger, avoid the binge and limit intake.

Sources: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Business Insider, Journal, Health Communications, Addiction and Genetics

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
You May Also Like
JUL 12, 2021
Health & Medicine
Is Caffeine Good or Bad for Migraines?
JUL 12, 2021
Is Caffeine Good or Bad for Migraines?
The short answer is it's still not certain if caffeine helps or worsens migraines, but chronic consumption of caffei ...
JUL 24, 2021
Cannabis Sciences
How Does Cannabis Affect Young People with ADHD?
JUL 24, 2021
How Does Cannabis Affect Young People with ADHD?
Researchers from Stanford University have conducted a review on current research investigating adverse effects on brain ...
AUG 21, 2021
Genetics & Genomics
Like Some People, Isolated Flies Will Eat More and Sleep Less
AUG 21, 2021
Like Some People, Isolated Flies Will Eat More and Sleep Less
Over the past year and a half, may people have been isolated and have spent far more time alone than usual. For some, th ...
SEP 03, 2021
Technology
Bionic Arm Effective at Restoring "Natural" Arm Function in Amputees
SEP 03, 2021
Bionic Arm Effective at Restoring "Natural" Arm Function in Amputees
A research team at the Cleveland Clinic has developed a new mechanical arm that could help people who have received arm ...
SEP 07, 2021
Neuroscience
Researchers Harness the Power of Machine Learning to Facilitate Drug Repurposing
SEP 07, 2021
Researchers Harness the Power of Machine Learning to Facilitate Drug Repurposing
Using machine learning and massive data sets from patients, researchers identify drug and drug combinations that could b ...
SEP 07, 2021
Clinical & Molecular DX
Dogs Can Pick Up the 'Seizure Smell', Alert Their Owners
SEP 07, 2021
Dogs Can Pick Up the 'Seizure Smell', Alert Their Owners
Dogs offer so much more than companionship and unconditional love. New research shows that for patients with epilepsy, t ...
Loading Comments...