Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Alcoholic Blackout

human brain
photo by brain_blogger (new window).

Jane does not suffer from the classic alcoholic blackout these days or has not had a blackout for about two years. A blackout is when the person cannot remember events during the time he or she was drunk (en bloc blackout - sometimes pieces of information can be recalled). Jane does, though, suffer from general memory loss or it seems to me that her memory is not good and certainly a lot less good than before. As it is a gradual change it goes unrecognised for a long time until one day it dawns on you that your memory sucks (to use an American term). By then it is usually far too late to do anything about it.

Apparently there were times in the past when she had an alcoholic blackout but on rare occasions. These days she always binge drinks in bed so no harm can come of her except falling over when going to the toilet or out buying more drink (considerable harm can happen when falling over of course). What I mean is that she doesn't go out to drink. If you have an alcoholic blackout when outside socialising it can be unnerving for the alcoholic as they have no idea what they got up to! And it will invariably be something bad.

Alcoholic blackouts seem to the part the umbrella symptom of loss of memory caused by drinking excess alcohol. As I said there is a gradual loss of memory function and a "block loss" (the time of the actual excessive drinking). Both are two sides of the same coin it seems to me. Ethanol alcohol, the chemical in booze that makes us drunk is a poison to us beyond a certain limit so it is no surprise that there are some detrimental consequences on our anatomy.

Sometimes people use alcoholic blackouts to claim that they weren't in control of themselves, when they committed a crime, for example. This is rubbish. All it means is that they can't remember it. At the time the person is usually able to exercise a degree of control over their actions despite large doses of alcohol. Alcoholics sometimes pride themselves in being able to function fairly normally when most of us would be asleep.

Alcoholic blackouts most frequently occur when alcohol is drunk quickly and in large amounts (and on an empty stomach). This applies most often to say weekend binge drinking by people who are not necessarily alcoholic. They may be on the path to becoming an alcoholic, though (see crossing the wire). In a survey of undergraduates about half admitted to having an alcoholic blackout and a number of these students were told that they had done things that were dangerous. Alcohol is dangerous both because of accidents leading to injury and the chemical damage done inside the brain and body generally. Women blacked out on less alcohol than men.

The hippocampus is a major component of the brain and plays important roles in long term memory and spatial navigation. Alcohol has an impact on the function of the hippocampus by interfering with the "circuitry" (direct impact) and affecting its communication with other parts of the brain (indirect impact). For example, the frontal lobes of the brain communicate with the hippocampus. The frontal lobes are also apparently affected by alcohol.

In conclusion, research informs us that many of ethanol's effects on learning and memory result from altered cellular activity in the hippocampus and related structures. This is the cause of alcoholic blackouts it seems to me.

Sources:
  • interscience.wiley.com
  • pubs.niaaa.nih.gov
  • personal experience
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I'd like to hear the experiences of both alcoholics and the victims of alcoholics, please.