We’ve all experienced it, the head-pounding, gut-wrenching feeling of waking up with a hangover. As you lie on the cool tiles of the bathroom floor, wishing to excise the demons previously imbibed the night prior, you think back on the series of events that led you to where you kneel. Unfortunately, those memories are not always easy to conjure up. The infamous “black-out,” or complete loss of memory from the previous night, that accompanies heavy drinking can be disconcerting at best and devastating at worst. It begs the question, how does a substance like alcohol have the capacity to strip us of our memories?
Well, interestingly enough, we don’t actually lose existing memories, but rather, our brain briefly loses the ability to form new memories (White, 2003). When we flood the brain with too much alcohol a funny thing happens in the hippocampus (a brain structure involved in consolidating memory). The increased alcohol levels cause a cascade of reactions leading to the production of signaling steroid molecules in the neurons of the hippocampus. These steroid molecules prevent the neurons from experiencing long-term potentiation, a cellular mechanism that allows for the strengthening of neural connections and subsequently the production of long-term memories (Dryden, 2011; Hermens & Lagopoulos, 2018; Purves et al., 2020; White, 2003).
Let’s face it, as fun as alcohol can be, it is a poison at the end of the day. At the acute level, alcohol can pause memory consolidation. With chronic use, alcohol has the capacity to cause irreparable damage to the hippocampi, resulting in early-onset dementia (Ridley et al., 2013). I tell you these things, not to scare you, but rather to inform you of the impact these substances have on our bodies. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction, I encourage you to get involved with your local branch of Alcoholics Anonymous.