Anatomy of a Blackout

brain-blackoutI’m pretty sure that almost everyone has at least at one point in their lives, woken up woken up on a morning, not remembering the events that accompanied heavy drinking that transpired the night before. This is called a black out. If you’re one of the lucky few that wake up the next morning feeling as fresh as possible after a night of heavy drinking, then props to you! The rest of us wish we could do the same.

It’s often speculated that blacking out from drinking too much is a result of brain cells being killed, but that isn’t necessarily true. According to a study by Yukitoshi Izumi, a research professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, what’s actually happening is that the excessive amount of alcohol “switches” off a brain region, resulting in new memories not being recorded in the first place.

“We’ve found that exposure to alcohol inhibits some receptors and later activates others, causing neurons to manufacture steroids that inhibit memory formation,” says Izumi.

Alcohol affects a number of areas in the brain, such as the hippocampus, which deals with storing and recalling memory, as well as other brain structures that are associated with more advanced cognitive functions.

In the study, Izumi studied and treated the hippocampal cells of rats. When he treated the cells with moderate amounts of alcohol, the areas having to do with memory were unaffected; but when he exposed the cells to large amounts of alcohol, the area concerning memory formation just completely shuts down.

Charles F. Zorumski from the team of researcher states that “it takes a lot of alcohol to shut down the hippocampus, but once it does, there’s no turning back. It’s not a straightforward process, though. The alcohol causes the receptors to behave in seemingly contradictory ways, and that’s what blocks the neural signals that create memories.”

So that’s why people don’t remember the things they did after a night of excessive drinking. The thresholds for the switch flipping in the hippocampus are different for everyone, though. It’s just the same way how people have varying levels of alcohol tolerance. Another study at the University of San Diego reinforces this.

If people are experiencing blackouts, though, it means that you are indeed consuming harmful amounts of alcohol. One should take this as a signal that more negative personal and health consequences are possibility that might occur. Just take it easy next time, the gang will thank you because you didn’t throw up all over the place, or had gotten into trouble and got them kicked out of the club – but more importantly, your brain will thank you too!

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