Blackouts and the Brain: The Science Behind Those Holes in Your College Memories

We all have that one night, dear galleons. That one night that your friends have told you about, with laughter or exasperation, but that you cannot remember for the life of you. My friends and I have running jokes about our blackout nights, as I’m sure you all do.

And while the stories that come out of these dark spots in a person’s memory can be very entertaining, we all know that those incidents cannot be particularly healthy. However, we never knew the brain mechanisms underlying them. Instead, we passed around the myth that drinking enough alcohol to blackout killed off brain cells, and went about toasting Dionysus with masochistic glee.

Time to drop some science in here, motherfuckers.

A recent study out of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has finally answered the question of what happens in the brain during those blackout moments. Neuroscientists found that alcohol actually interferes with N-Methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in the brain, causing them to manufacture steroids that prevent long-term potentiation (LTP), a process vital to memory formation.

Brain cells affected by alcohol are found in the hippocampus (as well as other brain structures involved in advanced cognitive processes), so Dr. Yukitoshi Izumi and Dr. Kazuhiro Tokuda (both research professor and instructor of psychiatry, respectively) studied slices of rat hippocampus while working on this problem. They found that treating the hippocampal slices with moderate amounts of alcohol had no impact on LTP, but large quantities of alcohol did.

…Which really isn’t surprising.

What’s interesting about this study (to me) is how the NMDA receptors are affected by alcohol, because the process isn’t straightforward. The affected NMDA receptors are glutamate transmitters. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that carries signals between neurons and plays a vital role in the LTP process. Copious amounts of alcohol triggers those receptors to behave in bizarre and contradictory ways, not blocking all of them, but effectively cutting their activity in half.

“The exposure to alcohol blocks some NMDA receptors and activates others, which then trigger the neuron to manufacture these steroids,” said Dr. Charles F. Zorumski, head of the Department of Psychiatry.

And these steroids are what inhibit LTP, interfering with synaptic plasticity (the malleable properties of synapses, the places where nerve cells communicate) and blocking memory formation, leading to our boozy blackouts. The alcohol actually isn’t damaging the neurons in any way- you just can’t form new memories.

Of course, once the scientists discovered the secret of blackouts, they began research into reversing the LTP interference problem.

Through the use of 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors (antiandrogens which inhibit the effects of certain sex hormones), they successfully blocked the production of steroids, thwarting the alcohol-induced memory loss.

“Perhaps men taking the drugs would be less likely to experience intoxication blackouts,” Izumi said.

I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if a million livers cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.