What Happens to the Brain During a Blackout?

Alcohol-induced blackouts are little understood and much more common than most people realize. Frequent blackouts are extremely dangerous in the short term, and carry the potential for severe, irreversible brain damage in the long term.

Unlike a person who passes out from excessive drinking and feels deeply embarrassed about their behavior the following morning, a person in the midst of a blackout has absolutely no awareness and no memory of events. The individual may act normally during the blackout, or they may send nasty emails to a boss or ex-lover, drive recklessly, get in fights or break the law.

Countless reminders of activities and events from family and friends are of absolutely no use because the blackout works as a roadblock that stops the brain’s working memory from functioning. Occurrences and events during the blackout never make it to the brain’s long-term storage. The time is completely lost, never to return.

A Form of Amnesia

Blackouts are a form of anterograde amnesia, which means that although a person may be busy and active during the episode, it is impossible to form new memories. However, memories formed before the blackout are unaffected.

Researchers have determined that blackout-associated memory impairments interfere with the workings of the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with formation of new memories. The more alcohol is consumed, the greater the memory loss and risk of long-term damage. It’s easy to understand why blackouts are so dangerous.

Scientists can’t explain why some alcoholics and heavy drinkers never have blackouts, while moderate or social drinkers may experience episodes every time they drink. However, it appears that blackouts aren’t triggered by the amount of alcohol, but the speed with which it is consumed and the resulting spike in blood alcohol.

Obviously, slamming a drink is a very bad idea. Drinking on an empty stomach also causes the alcohol to hit the blood stream quickly, thus increasing the risk of blackout. Combining alcohol with other drugs such as benzodiazepines also increases the risk.

Risk of Permanent Damage

Blackouts – even occasional episodes — should always be taken seriously. Experts aren’t sure if they create permanent brain damage, but there are powerful indications that frequent blackouts create a potential for long-term damage to memory and overall health. Repeated heavy drinking increases the risk.

While interfering with the workings of the brain is never a good idea, it’s also important to consider the possible negative consequences of actions and events during the blackout.

If you’re concerned about your drinking, it may be time to consider entering drug and alcohol treatment or rehab. If somebody you love experiences blackouts while under the influence, encourage them to seek help as soon as possible.

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