Alcohol and Its Effect on Memory
Any type of alcohol use, from moderate to heavy, has an effect on our bodies and our brains. It’s important to understand that heavy alcohol use causes damage to body organs and, most importantly, to the brain. Before understanding how alcohol affects our memory, we should first review how the brain creates new memories.
How the Brain Creates Memories
Scientists who study neurological activity agree that memories are made through three stages:
1. Sensory memory
2. Short-term memory
3. Long-term memory
Sensory memory is what happens directly after we experience something. Our brain receives input through our senses: what we hear, see, taste, touch, and smell, but there are always many things happening at once.
Think about the experience of being at a football game. The smell of pretzels and hot dogs is in the air. There are players moving around on the field, but there are also people around you wearing colorful jerseys. Your friend in the seat next to yours is talking to you, but there’s also the roaring sound of the crowd and the static-filled voice of the announcer coming through the speakers. It’s overwhelming.
Luckily, our brains can handle all this input because we have selective focus. Sensory memories last only about one or two seconds if we are not paying attention to them. However, once we begin to think about them, they become short-term memories. Short-term memories can last up to seven minutes, depending on how long the person is focusing on the information.
When these short-term memories are given a lot of attention, or we practice and rehearse them, they can become long-term memories. This is where alcohol works to suppress memory-building.
“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
How Alcohol Prevents Memories
It was believed for a long time that heavy alcohol use kills brain cells, which in turn didn’t allow the brain to make new memories. But this is not the case; while using alcohol, the person is still creating sensory and short-term memories.
Alcohol works against our brain receptors related to memory-building. It prevents the transfer of memories from short-term to long-term. This is why a person may wake up the day after heavy alcohol use and not remember events from the previous night. The memory loss may be fragmented (often called browning out) or complete (blackout).
The Consequences of Blackouts
In the short-term, the first consequence of blacking out is not remembering the events of the previous night. Some alcohol users, especially college students, may find this part humorous, and treat the mystery of the previous night like a scavenger hunt as they seek out details from their friends. However, there’s nothing funny about the damage that is being done to the brain from these blackouts.
After heavy alcohol use, alcohol poisoning and overdoses are possible consequences. Remember, alcohol impairs judgment, so someone who is already in the blackout stage may continue drinking. Furthermore, blacking out causes a person to engage in risky behavior, such as vandalizing, driving, fighting, and using illicit drugs.
In the long-term, heavy alcohol use can lead to all types of physical problems, ranging from liver damage to nerve damage. Alcohol’s effects on the brain are just as terrible—studies show alcohol causes the brain to shrink, which is similar to what happens when a person has Alzheimer’s disease. The effects of heavy alcohol use on memory aren’t fully understood, but it’s clear that alcohol has a negative impact on our brains and our memories.
There are many ways to avoid alcohol memory problems, and these are the same guidelines we use to educate people on safe drinking. Drinking slowly, staying hydrated with water, and eating a good meal before drinking are great ways to keep the damages of alcohol to a minimum.
However, if stopping alcohol use is too difficult, a detox may be the right choice to protect your physical health and your brain. Clients can even go through the detox process at home. And it’s not too late to start—although some damage from alcohol use is irreversible, studies show that abstaining from alcohol after heavy use can lead to improvements in memory.
If you or a loved one is in need of alcohol detox, contact one of our medical professionals today to see how we can help.