You wake up in your bed with a pounding headache and an unquenchable thirst. Your belongings from the night before are sprawled across the floor around you and you say to yourself, “Not again…” Yes, you’ve blacked out, yet again. It’s not even worth trying to figure out what your new total is. You lost count after twenty. And you tell yourself, “Never again. You will be better next time.”
However, despite the countless incoherent Facebook rants or the embarrassing table dancing you just don’t remember, the cycle somehow ends up repeating itself… over and over again. It was funny the first few times when you would go around and ask your friends what had happened the night before and find out the funny things you did. You almost felt like you were re-living The Hangover. But there are only so many times this can happen before it starts to feel like you’re actually in The Hangover. At this rate when you look back on university, you won’t be able to remember half of it. Most people have experienced fragmentary blackouts—also known as brownouts—where there are parts of your night you can’t remember. But then there are the lucky few who are closely acquainted with what is scientifically known as alcohol-induced amnesia, where you are unable to recount your entire night. An anonymous university student states, “Blacking out is inexplicable to those who have not experienced it. That is why we chosen ones, who blackout, tend to stick together. We need that support; we understand each other when no one else can.”
It’s a curious thing, blacking out. One rarely stops to think about what exactly is going on inside the person when it happens. How exactly can they not remember anything they did? It is known that alcohol affects the brain. It interferes with the brain receptors in the hippocampus, which is the area responsible for forming new memories. When exposed to alcohol, these receptors begin to shut down. Therefore the hippocampus cannot store short-term memories and turn them into long-term ones; this explains why a person who is blacking out can hold a conversation but not remember it the next morning.
Once a person has even one blackout, it is likely that more will follow. But how is it that some people black out more frequently than others and there are some who have never even experienced one? Reagan R. Wetherill of the University of California states, “Some people may be more vulnerable to alcohol’s effects than others.” According to their studies some people are more likely to experience alcohol-induced amnesia because of the way alcohol affects brain activity in certain areas such as working memory. Furthermore, according to a recent study by Nelson and colleagues, there may even be a genetic explanation as to why certain people black out more frequently. The study surveyed identical and fraternal twins. Because identical twins share identical genes, and fraternal about half of the same genes, both pairs were compared to see whether the trait of blacking out was related more significantly to environmental or genetic factors. It was concluded that much of the risk for blackouts was genetic.
Prolonged excessive drinking and continued blacking out can lead to permanent damage within the memory system. It changes the underlying brain chemistry that controls skills and abilities, and therefore can start to have long-term—and even permanent—consequences on the brain. There is no way to stop blacking out other than giving up alcohol altogether but if we’re going to be realistic, preventing factors that help contribute to blacking out may be a more favorable option. Monitoring how fast and how much you drink as well as how much you eat before are easily controllable factors that can help to prevent future blackouts. So the next time you reach for that bottle of vodka, just remember, it might be nice to actually remember Uni…
***All information is not personal to the author but taken from scientific journals and personal experiences from anonymous university students.
Image Credit: Or17