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No Laughing Matter
Popular media and Hollywood glamorize blacking out, and not being able to remember what happened the night before is the topic of many fun-filled tales. But blackouts are no laughing matter, according to expert researcher Dr. Marc Schuckit.
“Some people think that blackouts, very bad hangovers, and outrageous behaviour at parties are very funny,” Schuckit said in a press release for a study on college students who blacked out. “This does not represent ‘fun.’ People don’t understand how dangerous blackouts are. In fact, people have oodles of misconceptions about drinking.”
Blackouts tend to start at blood alcohol levels of at least 0.15%, about twice the US legal limit for driving, especially when a person hits that level quickly.
What’s happening at this stage is alcohol flooding the hippocampus; a brain region that records our lives as they unfold. Specifically, alcohol is interfering with certain receptors in the hippocampus that transmit glutamate, a compound that carries signals between neurons. During this interference, alcohol stops some receptors from working, while activating other receptors. This process makes the neurons create steroids that then prevent other neurons from communicating with each other properly, thus disrupting long-term potentiation (LTP), a process needed for learning and memory.
Put in simpler terms, neurons in the brain stop talking to each other and capturing memories. When the hippocampus is off, no matter how hard we might try, a memory will not be recalled because it will not have been recorded in the first place. Research has shown that people who are blacked out are likely to continue drinking because the substance jeopardizes their judgment. They may not remember how much they have consumed, so they continue drinking excessively. They are also more likely to engage in other risky behavior. People report driving cars, having unprotected sex, vandalizing property, getting into fights and abusing illicit drugs when blacked out.
Besides the (very likely) possibility of engaging in questionable behavior that you’d likely regret if you could remember, any time you alter your basic brain function in such a significant way it leaves you open to long-term damage. In some cases, when the alcohol clears the brain, normal functioning is restored. Any thoughts that are still moving through the brain in neurotransmitters might be recovered and imprinted as memories. Some thoughts will be lost forever or in other words, alcohol-induced blackout effects can be permanent.