Good News From Science: Blackouts Explained—Alcohol Doesn't Kill Neurons, It Just Blocks Them


Amnesia in a bottle

Some of H&R readers may remember their weekends, and some not. R&D Magazine reports that researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis can now explain why:

They report, in The Journal of Neuroscience, that exposure to large amounts of alcohol does not necessarily kill brain cells as once was thought. Rather, alcohol interferes with key receptors in the brain, which in turn manufacture steroids that inhibit long-term potentiation (LTP), a process that strengthens the connections between neurons and is crucial to learning and memory. …

The brain cells affected by alcohol are found in the hippocampus and other brain structures involved in advanced cognitive functions. Izumi and first author Kazuhiro Tokuda, MD, research instructor of psychiatry, studied slices of the hippocampus from the rat brain.

When they treated hippocampal cells with moderate amounts of alcohol, LTP was unaffected, but exposing the cells to large amounts of alcohol inhibited the memory formation mechanism.

"It takes a lot of alcohol to block LTP and memory," says senior investigator Charles F. Zorumski, MD, the Samuel B. Guze Professor and head of the department of psychiatry. "But the mechanism isn't straightforward. The alcohol triggers these receptors to behave in seemingly contradictory ways, and that's what actually blocks the neural signals that create memories. It also may explain why individuals who get highly intoxicated don't remember what they did the night before."

But not all NMDA receptors are blocked by alcohol. Instead, their activity is cut roughly in half.

"The exposure to alcohol blocks some NMDA receptors and activates others, which then trigger the neuron to manufacture these steroids," Zorumski says.

The scientists point out that alcohol isn't causing blackouts by killing neurons. Instead, the steroids interfere with synaptic plasticity to impair LTP and memory formation.

"Alcohol isn't damaging the cells in any way that we can detect," Zorumski says. "As a matter of fact, even at the high levels we used here, we don't see any changes in how the brain cells communicate. You still process information. You're not anesthetized. You haven't passed out. But you're not forming new memories."

Who needs those embarassing memories of excessive alcohol consumption anyway?


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  1. “”Alcohol isn’t damaging the cells in any way that we can detect,” Zorumski says. “As a matter of fact, even at the high levels we used here, we don’t see any changes in how the brain cells communicate. “

    MADD is going to enjoy this one.

  2. What about brown-outs, you jabroni?

    1. Rolling black-outs are the worst.. especially on an escalator.

    2. Brown-out? You mean being so drunk that you shit yourself?

      1. Mud Bath

        1. Boy, tub girl must have been really loaded.

          Pro tip: do not google tub girl.

        2. I guess tub girl was really drunk then.

          Pro tip: under no circumstances should any sane person google “tub girl.”

      2. No, Brown Outs are something that chicks made up so that they don’t black out.

    3. Where the hell is Epi? He’d get the reference…

    4. I think we should put our browns together so we can find out who banged my sister.

  3. Feel good post of the year at H&R.

    1. More like the feel nothing post of the year.

  4. Yes, but it doesn’t explain why I piss in my closet. LOL


    1. Sometimes, anon-bot, you seem almost human.

      Been turing much?

      1. I actually have a co-worker who responds in anon-bot-like fashion whenever I send him emails. (E.g., “Oh, wow… Never thought of it that way.”) Sometimes I wonder if he has a side job writing anon-responses.

    2. Thanks for reminding me Hamptons share houses. There seems to be one of you in every house.

    3. Wow – this is some of your best work, Jess/JOhhny/derp. I mean – wow.

      1. Hey, if Skynet likes to party, then we have an obligation to keep the shots coming.

        1. It’s the only way to makes sure it doesn’t remember to take over the world.

  5. I attempt to passout before I black out.

  6. The exposure to alcohol blocks some NMDA receptors and activates others

    Could the memories be still made but not in an ‘accessible file’?
    I find the topic intriguing, I believe our vestigial wiring is not latent but presents in other ways.…..uced-fate/

    I’ve never though of this in context of our manifest functions

    1. There’s a place in Denver known as Red Square. Its a vodka bar where they give pickles as chasers. After my last visit, I blacked out. Now, if there were still subconscious memories that were created, I would have a visceral contempt for pickles for facilitating a complete binge that probably killed half my liver. But I can eat pickles today without any issues. So I believe that all memory creating processes cease to function while experiencing the full scale blackout.

      1. How do you know the pickles did not give you pleasure, or, are you more keen on them? Do you smile when you see them?
        You may have had a stimulating experience while eating a pickle: girl caught your eye, made a sexual reference.

        How long ago was your blackout? You may experience a memory trigger to that night; including a physical action. We assumed that the body was permanently incapacitated with a spine break, but we know that their is a secondary memory center. I need to google the research so I can recall correctly

        1. This talk of pickles giving pleasure disturbs me.

          1. It’s dangerous to talk to Valerie, Tim.

            1. I think feminism CAN be libertarian. I am not saying that Rather is libertarian, she is not. But I think that if she could be convinced that her end goals could best be met in a libertarian society, she could become one.

              I am willing to talk to almost anyone – I think she has potential. She is not like a Max.

              1. You may do as you please, PIRS. Just watch getting on elevators.

                1. Sugarfree, did you lose some of your wife’s chopped-up parts when you thawed her for July 4th?

                  Poor thing 🙁

                  1. Remember, kids, if you can’t stand feminists, then you’re a misogynist.

      2. Didn’t they cover this in “Beerfest?”

  7. speaking of excessive alcohol comsumption, the reasonoids should get their gathering tix now

    1. Awww shit, that’s still around?

      1. Oh yeah, pretend like you didn’t already order tickets two months ago.

        JUGGALOZ 4 LYF, YO!

  8. “The brain cells affected by alcohol are found in the hippocampus and other brain structures involved in advanced cognitive functions.”

    “Alcohol isn’t damaging the cells in any way that we can detect,” Zorumski says. “As a matter of fact, even at the high levels we used here, we don’t see any changes in how the brain cells communicate.”

    contradiction? or is the key here that they dont DAMAGE the cells, merely AFFECT them (w/e that means)

    1. There is a big difference between damage (no repair capabilities) and changing the way they function temporarily.

    2. Biochemistry, how does that work?

  9. Re: brain damage caused by alcohol

    See: Wernicke?Korsakoff Syndrome

    Cerebellar shrinkage associated with chronic alcoholism is well documented.

    1. This article is about blackouts not chronic alcoholism.

      1. You are correct.

  10. Blackout is racist.

    1. I prefer Oreo Out.

  11. “Who needs those embarassing memories of excessive alcohol consumption anyway?”

    There’s an old AA/NA joke that goes…

    Q: What’s the difference between an alcoholic and a drug addict?

    A: The alcoholics can’t remember where they’ve been and what they’ve done–and the drug addicts can never forget!

  12. ,,, I paid $32.67 for a XBOX 360 and my mom got a 17 inch Toshibalaptop for $94.83 being delivered to our house tomorrow by fedex. I will never again pay expensive retail prices at stores.I even sold a 46 inch HDTV to my boss for $650 and it only cost me $52.78 to get. Here is the website we using to get all this stuff,

  13. Now if they could do something about my liver, I’d be set.

    1. Well there is some evidence that saturated fat can reduce your risk of liver damage. Same for coffee.

      Now you know why we crave coffee and bacon and eggs after a night of heavy drinking.

  14. That’s why I drink absinthe.

  15. So what, if any, are the long-term affects of heavy drinking?

    1. Apart from liver damage.

    2. “cerebellar shrinkage associated with chronic alcoholism is well documented”

      You didn’t read the whole thread did you?

  16. “Well ya see Norm, it’s like this… A herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo. And when the herd is hunted, it is the slowest and weakest ones at the back that are killed first. This natural selection is good for the herd as a whole, because the general speed and health of the whole group keeps improving by the regular killing of the weakest members.
    “In much the same way, the human brain can only operate as fast as the lowest brain cells. Excessive intake of alcohol, as we all know, kills brain cells, but naturally it attacks the slowest and weakest brain cells first. In this way, regular consumption of beer elimates the weaker brain cells, making the brain a faster and more efficient machine. That’s why you always feel smarter after a few beers.”

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