Alcohol Memory Loss


Few cognitive functions or behaviors escape the impact of alcohol, a fact that has long been recognized in the literature. In addition to impairing balance, motor coordination, decisionmaking, and a litany of other functions, alcohol produces detectable memory impairments beginning after just one or two drinks. As the dose increases, so does the magnitude of the memory impairments. Under certain circumstances, alcohol can disrupt or completely block the ability to form memories for events that transpire while a person is intoxicated, a type of impairment known as a blackout. This article reviews what is currently known regarding the specific features of acute alcohol–induced memory dysfunction, particularly alcohol–induced blackouts, and the pharmacological mechanisms underlying them.


  • The author recruited 10 male subjects for the project, all but one through the unemployment office in St. Louis, Missouri.
  • When introduced to someone, immediately repeat the person’s name and use it as much as possible.
  • However, heavy drinking can quickly deplete both grey and white matter, which may cause problems with memory and thinking.

However, a recent study has shown that blackouts can affect both social drinkers and those dealing with alcoholism and substance abuse. A person who drinks heavily even once can experience the short-term effects of alcohol on his or her body and memory. Typically, the body metabolizes one standard drink of alcohol per hour. When someone exceeds this amount, his or her blood alcohol content raises with each drink and taxes the liver’s ability to process the toxin.

Are Blackouts a Sign of an Alcohol-Related Problem?

They can ask a family member, friend, or the doctor’s office to remind them if they’re worried they’ll forget. Talk with your doctor to determine whether memory and other cognitive problems, such as the ability to clearly think and learn, are normal and what may be causing them. Acquired brain injury The long-term effects of brain injury will be different for each person and can range from mild to profound. Don’t assume that people with ARBI will understand and remember what is being discussed. They may nod their head and say they understand when in reality they don’t.

When someone takes in more than this amount, one’s blood alcohol level increases with each sip, putting a strain on the liver’s capacity to process the toxin. A healthy, active lifestyle will keep this brain matter functioning correctly. However, heavy drinking can quickly deplete both grey and white matter, which may cause problems with memory and thinking. Scientists have studied the effects of alcohol on the brain and body for decades, but still have not come to a complete consensus on how alcohol affects the brain. Alcohol is absorbed by the stomach lining, travels to the blood stream, and then reaches the liver.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol use or addiction, don’t wait until you begin to experience memory-altering effects on your brain. Because alcohol can be challenging to stop alone, many people will need to participate in a formal treatment program to overcome their addiction. Fortunately, Vertava Health provides highly successful and personalized treatment programs for those who need help with alcohol addiction. If sufficient alcohol is present in the ACSF bathing the slice of hippocampal tissue when the patterned stimulation is given, the response recorded later at position B will not be larger than it was at baseline .

For decades scientists believed that the number of nerve cells in the adult brain was fixed early in life. If brain damage occurred, then, the best way to treat it was by strengthening the existing neurons, as new ones could not be added. In the 1960s, however, researchers found that new neurons are indeed generated in adulthood—a process called neurogenesis . These new cells originate from stem cells, which are cells that can divide indefinitely, renew themselves, and give rise to a variety of cell types. The discovery of brain stem cells and adult neurogenesis provides a new way of approaching the problem of alcohol–related changes in the brain and may lead to a clearer understanding of how best to treat and cure alcoholism . Scientists are investigating the use of complex motor training and medications to prevent or reverse the alcohol–related brain damage found in people prenatally exposed to alcohol .

quantities of alcohol

If you or someone you know is struggling from alcohol abuse, please call our free helpline for further information and to explore your options. Medically supervised detoxification can help deal with the physical withdrawals from alcohol, and therapy will manage the person’s psychological dependency. Symptoms such as blurred vision and slower reaction times are a good indication on the effect alcohol has on a person’s brain. For people who drink daily and heavily, there isn’t always a safe or moderate amount of alcohol consumed. It’s hard to know what to say to a loved one when you’re worried that their drinking is affecting their health.


Older individuals are more vulnerable to the short- and long-term effects of alcohol use on their brains. In addition, people who drink too much alcohol are often deficient in vitamin B-1, or thiamine. This vitamin is vital to providing energy to brain and nerve cells.

In a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, only one out of 50 college students who had experienced a blackout said they blacked out after drinking beer alone. Our community offers unique perspectives on lifelong recovery and substance use prevention, empowering others through stories of strength and courage. From people in active recovery to advocates who have lost loved ones to the devastating disease of addiction, our community understands the struggle and provides guidance born of personal experience. The transition back to life outside of rehab is fraught with the potential for relapse. Aftercare resources such as 12-step groups, sober living homes and support for family and friends promote a life rich with rewarding relationships and meaning. Many people who have an alcohol problem or addiction try to conceal it.

As might be expected given the excessive drinking habits of many college students (Wechsler et al. 2002), this population commonly experiences blackouts. White and colleagues recently surveyed 772 undergraduates regarding their experiences with blackouts. Respondents who answered yes to the question “Have you ever awoken after a night of drinking not able to remember things that you did or places that you went?


Choose low-fat protein sources, such as fish, beans and skinless poultry. This involves a notable decline in at least one area of thinking skills, such as memory, that’s greater than the changes of aging and less than those of dementia. Having mild cognitive impairment doesn’t prevent you from performing everyday tasks and being socially engaged. The word «dementia» is an umbrella term used to describe a set of symptoms, including impairment in memory, reasoning, judgment, language and other thinking skills. Dementia usually begins gradually, worsens over time and impairs a person’s abilities in work, social interactions and relationships. A number of conditions — not only Alzheimer’s disease — can cause memory loss in older adults.

Research suggests that fragmentary blackouts are far more common than those of the en bloc variety (White et al. 2004; Hartzler and Fromme 2003b; Goodwin et al. 1969b). To evaluate the effects of alcohol, or any other drug, on memory, one must first identify a model of memory formation and storage to use as a reference. One classic, often–cited model, initially proposed by Atkinson and Shiffrin , posits that memory formation and storage take place in several stages, proceeding from sensory memory to short–term memory to long–term storage. This model often is referred to as the modal model of memory, as it captures key elements of several other major models.

What Are Alcohol Blackouts?

If you have experienced a blackout before, you’re likely at a higher risk for blacking out in the future and should exercise caution. If you’re worried about how much a friend has had to drink, ask him about something that occurred 10 to 15 minutes ago. If you see warning signs for alcohol poisoning or overdose — such as vomiting, difficulty breathing, or cold or blue skin — then get emergency medical help immediately. Schuckit’s study and several others have found that people who black out from drinking risk a number of negative consequences. Studies also suggest that prenatal exposure to alcohol increases a person’s chance of experiencing blackouts in the future, and certain genes may increase a person’s likelihood to black out. The researchers tested their memories after the first hour by showing them images and asking them to recall the details two minutes, 30 minutes and 24 hours later.

verywell mind

In the short-term, people who binge drink can experience either apartial or complete blackoutbecause of the effects of the alcohol on their hippocampus. A large-scale study that followed participants for 27 years found moderate alcohol consumption — defined as one to two drinks a few days a week — didn’t have an increased risk of dementia. If you, a family member, or friend has problems remembering recent events or thinking clearly, talk with a doctor. He or she may suggest a thorough checkup to see what might be causing the symptoms. You may also wish to talk with your doctor about opportunities to participate in research on cognitive health and aging.

They have a symptom called confabulation, in which they make up small stories to fill gaps in their memory. This is especially true if they’re older — you may wonder if their symptoms are related to aging. These situations can range from small, such as where a person put their keys, to large, such as forgetting what happened in night. According to Duke University, the inability to remember anything from a night out usually occurs after a person has had five or more drinks. A 2013 study found that an estimated 78 percent of individuals diagnosed with AUD experience changes to the brain.

There are other causes of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome that are not related to alcohol; in these cases, the disorder can be found in a wide range of individuals outside of those who drink alcohol. Nevertheless, people with alcoholism or who engage in alcohol abuse make up the majority of individuals with this condition. Follow your health care provider’s advice for dealing with medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, hearing loss and obesity.

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Most men were able to remember the images two minutes after seeing them, but half of the men could not remember them 30 minutes or 24 hours later. People who experience a fragmentary blackout may think they can’t remember what happened the night before, but their memory comes back when someone or something reminds them. Researchers believe a person may be unable to access the memory unless a reminder triggers it. When enough attention is given to information, or the information is rehearsed, it is transferred into long-term memory. Treatment for addiction takes many forms and depends on the needs of the individual. In accordance with the American Society of Addiction Medicine, we offer information on outcome-oriented treatment that adheres to an established continuum of care.

Prevalence of the Disorder

Additionally, the perfect sobriety gifts can result in alcohol-related brain damage . ARBD is a condition that can cause permanent problems with memory learning and cognition. Tremendous progress has been made toward an understanding of the mechanisms underlying alcohol–induced memory impairments. Alcohol disrupts activity in the hippocampus via several routes—directly, through effects on hippocampal circuitry, and indirectly, by interfering with interactions between the hippocampus and other brain regions. The impact of alcohol on the frontal lobes remains poorly understood, but probably plays an important role in alcohol–induced memory impairments. Although the exact meaning of these changes remains unclear, the evidence suggests that acute intoxication alters the normal functioning of the frontal lobes.

Korsakoff syndrome causes problems learning new information, inability to remember recent events and long-term memory gaps. Memory difficulties may be strikingly severe while other thinking and social skills are relatively unaffected. For example, individuals may seem able to carry on a coherent conversation but moments later are unable to recall that the conversation took place or with whom they spoke. Drinking during pregnancy can lead to a range of physical, learning, and behavioral effects in the developing brain, the most serious of which is a collection of symptoms known as fetal alcohol syndrome . And they may have fewer numbers of brain cells (i.e., neurons) or fewer neurons that are able to function correctly, leading to long–term problems in learning and behavior. Up to 80 percent of alcoholics, however, have a deficiency in thiamine , and some of these people will go on to develop serious brain disorders such as Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome .

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