By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
If your friend gets sloshed at a party, then swirls her clothing in the air while wildly dancing atop a table and swears not remembering it, don’t blame it on the alcohol. Blame it on the brain receptors.
Neuroscientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have identified brain cells and function that allow extremely intoxicated people to perform complex tasks such as dancing, debating or even driving home without having any recollection of it the next day.
In the study published in the July 6 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers reported they previously believed consuming large amounts of alcohol killed brain cells, and that explained the temporary amnesia commonly called blackouts. They now understand alcohol interferes with brain receptors that produce steroids, which cause neurons essential to memory and learning to misfire.
“It’s been known for a long time that changes in the way neurons connect with each other underlies the ability to learn new things, and people thought alcohol blocks memory function,” says senior investigator Dr. Chuck Zorumski, the Samuel B. Guze Professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University. “It’s actually the main neurons or brain cells that shut themselves down when they’re exposed to alcohol.”
Once a person has even one blackout, it’s likely others will follow, Zorumski explains, and that could lead to disaster.
“If you drink enough alcohol, you will do things you won’t even realize you did the next day,” he says. “You will have conversations with people you won’t remember and put yourself in dangerous situations. You will get yourself in trouble, not remember and it may be the police explaining it to you.”
Neuroscientists unraveled the alcohol-induced blackout mystery while studying rat brain cells to understand why certain illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease affect people’s memory. When the rat brain cells were exposed to large amounts of alcohol, memory loss was significant.
Scientists also discovered stress and certain drugs affect memory. Additionally, a combination of alcohol and sedating drugs, such as Xanax, is more likely to cause blackouts than alcohol alone, the study reported.
However, in some medical situations, having a “blackout” can be beneficial -- and intentional.
“When you have surgical procedures done, and you get Propofol, Midazlam or another anesthesia,” Zorumski says, “you will have little memory of the procedure.”
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