An explanation for all those nights you can’t remember.
Ever go out drinking one night and wake up the next morning with absolutely no recollection of what happened?
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Everyone knows drinking too much can lead to a blackout. But nobody really understands why.
What about alcohol makes us forget things? And why does it only happen to certain people, on certain nights, or with certain drinks?
To get to the bottom of this, we spoke with Aaron White, PhD, senior scientific advisor to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and Dr. Matt Sztajnkrycer, emergency medicine physician at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, about what really happens in your brain when you drink and how that can lead to blackouts (and everything that goes with it).
Alright, here we go.
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When you drink, alcohol affects almost every single part of your brain.
White says it only takes a couple of drinks – depending on genetics and tolerance – for alcohol to enter your bloodstream and make its way to your brain, directly interfering with the areas that tell your body what to do. Here are the areas primarily impacted by booze:
- Reward pathway: Controls feelings of euphoria, making you feel good.
- Cerebellum: Controls motor coordination: balance, movement, reaction time.
- Frontal lobe: Controls behavior, decision making, and impulse control.
- Amygdala: Makes you feel anxious or afraid when you’re in danger.
Most parts of your brain can develop a certain amount of tolerance to alcohol, which is why sometimes you can function completely fine even when you’re blacked out.
White says that while you’re drinking your brain can develop what’s called an acute tolerance – a resistance to the effects of drugs or other things with just a single exposure to the drug – which means your brain is effectively learning how to minimize the effects of the alcohol.
Most parts of your brain can also develop a long-term tolerance to alcohol, which means the more experience your brain has with it, the more tolerance it’ll be able to build up, and the more you’ll be able to function normally even with a high blood alcohol content (BAC). White says this is why some people can be absolutely hammered, but walk around and talk like they’re completely fine; their cerebellum, which controls their motor coordination, has developed a higher tolerance.
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