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alcohol blackout brain damage

What an Alcohol Blackout is Really Doing to Your Brain

Alcohol is a neurotoxin. It destroys brain tissue and can cause seriously damaging long-term effects. Generally, the most damage occurs during an “alcohol blackout.” College students, high schoolers, and many adults have experienced being blackout drunk while partying.

What they may not be aware of is how damaging this can be to the brain. During a blackout, someone drinks enough alcohol that their memory stops functioning. As a result, the brain becomes so saturated that it stops logging events. The next morning, the drinker may not recall much- or any- of the night before. But what’s happening inside the brain is even scarier- and can mean long-term damage.

Why Blackouts Occur?

Alcohol disrupts in the link between your short and long-term memory, then a blackout happens. Mainly, an alcohol blackout causes permanent memory loss in a matter of minutes. While many factors contribute to this episode, blood alcohol concentration levels and other elements play a role.

Everything from your weight, how quickly someone drinks, the amount of alcohol, and the type of alcohol comes into play. Additionally, women are more prone to experience blackouts than men. Some of the most common causes of alcohol-induced blackouts include:

  • Heavy drinking on an empty stomach
  • Low blood pressure
  • Epilepsy
  • Low blood sugar
  • Psychogenic seizures
  • Lack of oxygen
  • Reactions to medications

Types of Blackouts

Not all alcohol-related blackouts are the same. The most prevalent ones are known as “fragmentary blackouts.” People experience spotty memories for events separated by missing periods in between. The other type involves complete amnesia, often spanning hours, these “en bloc” blackouts are severe, and memories of events don’t form and cannot be recovered. When someone suffers a complete blackout episode, it is as if the events never occurred, they merely don’t remember any event.

Who’s at Risk of a Blackout?

People think only heavy drinkers and those with an alcoholism problem are at risk of a blackout. While the amount of alcohol plays a role, so many factors come to play. Young adults and those who are more likely to binge drink are at higher risk. Women are also at higher risk because their bodies process alcohol differently than men. However, virtually everyone is at risk. 

A study about alcohol blackouts among college students found that:

  • 4% of students experienced a blackout two weeks previous to the study
  • 40% of students experienced a blackout in the year before the study

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Blackout

Alcohol works on neurotransmitters like glutamate and GABA. Glutamate is responsible for cognitive functioning, energy, and overall brain activity. On the other hand, GABA decreases brain activity, slows nerve signals, and reduces energy levels.

Alcohol reduces the production of glutamate and increases the production of GABA. This production is what causes the mentally and physically sedating effects of alcohol. These effects occur primarily in the cerebral cortex and cerebellum, which control judgment, decision-making, speech, coordination, and the senses.

When someone experiences an alcoholic blackout, these parts of the brain stop functioning correctly. That’s what causes sleepiness, impaired short-term memory, loss of consciousness, and poor coordination. Additionally, in the short-term, this can cause effects like poor memory and judgment, which can lead to risky decisions, injuries, and high-risk behaviors.

In some cases, blackouts can be life-threatening. When someone reaches the blood alcohol content necessary for an alcoholic blackout, they risk getting alcohol poisoning.

Long-Term Effects of Blackouts

Unfortunately, many alcoholics experience memory blackouts regularly. Frequent memory blackouts cause significant damage to the brain. One of the most severe impacts of regular, heavy drinking is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or “wet brain.” Wet brain is a deficiency in nutrients, caused by long-term heavy drinking.

When the brain lacks necessary nutrients, like thiamine, it can suffer severe damage. Thus, the wet brain’s effects cause confusion, mood changes, lack of coordination, coma, psychosis, and, eventually, death. This condition is permanent.

Although there are treatment options for the symptoms, the damage to the brain is unrepairable. Alcohol also disrupts the development of new brain cells. This process, called neurogenesis, is vital to long-term brain health.

When someone experiences numerous blackouts from heavy drinking, their brain can stop forming new brain cells. Hence, the resulting brain damage and actual shrinkage of the brain itself. As a result, a heavy drinker may experience lifelong issues with judgment, decision-making, learning, and memory.

Memory and Blackouts

In the end, the memory impairments of an alcohol blackout episode are permanent. While people don’t experience long-term memory loss, recollections of whatever happened during the blackout will never return. Any incident of blackout is a sign of acute intoxication and can incur lasting effects on the brain, including permanent frontal lobe damage responsible for controlling cognitive functioning. 

Are Blackouts a Sign of Alcohol Abuse Problems?

Some research looking at the frequency of blackouts among college students is trying to pinpoint if there’s a connection. However, so many factors play a role in alcohol abuse problems that it’s impossible to point the blame at one single cause. 

Blackouts are not a direct indicator of alcohol use disorder. However, experiencing them is a reason for concern and should prompt people to consider their relationship with alcohol and drinking overall. It might be beneficial to discuss these behaviors and patterns with a healthcare provider. 

Getting Help for Drinking

One of the significant signs of alcoholism is the inability to control how much one drinks. Generally, if you are experiencing frequent blackouts and passing out from alcohol, this can indicate a loss of control. In addition to brain damage, blacking out can lead to high-risk choices, injuries, family problems, work issues, and mental health issues. Frequent blackouts are a sign that it may be time to get some help.

Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous- even fatal- so you must receive professional advice to recover safely. So, if you are concerned about your drinking or a loved one’s, give us a call now. Our trained and compassionate staff is available to help you recover safely and successfully from alcohol addiction. We chose comprehensive and personalized treatment programs that mold to your unique needs and adapt as you progress through your recovery journey. 

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