What actually happens when you get drunk?

According to several surveys, a large number of people (66 percent, in one of students) have experienced a “drunk blackout” where they forget chunks of time—yet it’s a topic we’re relatively new to. understand a lot.

One of the problems with researching the subject (using direct humans rather than an animal model) is that it now requires subjects who are drunk and unconscious to stumble into your office or be forced to rely on their memories of times when they were , uh, drunk. In the past, however, you could always use secret option number three: the ethically dubious experiment of pouring alcohol on alcoholics and running tests during the subsequent blackout.

This happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s when researcher Donald Goodwin recruited alcoholics from hospitals to participate in a series of unusual memory tests.

In the first part of the study, subjects were asked about their own experiences with blackouts and how others described their behavior during these events. Perhaps surprisingly, he found that humans were largely in control of their abilities during these events.

“The most dramatic lapses involved travel,” Goodwin wrote in his 1969 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

“About a quarter of those surveyed had at least once found themselves in a place while drinking without remembering how they got there. This often involved traveling long distances over a day or more. To travel such distances, one obviously had to have some control over one’s abilities.”

“In some cases, checks were written, planes were boarded, hotels were checked in, but the person had no conscious recollection of any of these events.”

Friends who saw them in these states described them as drunk but acting normal. Interviewing these patients yielded a lot of interesting information about blackouts (did you know you can be aware of a blackout while awake? “One subject found himself dancing without remembering what he had been doing for the previous six hours”).

However, where these experiments crossed an ethical line that we are unlikely to cross today was when Goodwin administered alcohol to the patients.

Goodwin took subjects—some with a history of blackouts, some without—and had them drink up to a pint of bourbon over the course of four hours. During this time, they were tested for “remote memory, immediate memory (ability to remember events for one minute), short-term memory (ability to remember events for 30 minutes), and recent memory (ability to remember events immediately preceding alcohol consumption). time)”.

During the experiment, volunteers were shown a series of pornographic films and various toys. Failing to recognize these things the next day proved whether they had a blackout or not. During this experiment, he observed for himself how volunteers can behave quite normally when experiencing a power outage.

In another experiment, he held a pan in his hand and asked the participants if they were hungry. Hearing their reply, he informed them that the pan was full of dead mice. Interestingly, he found that subjects forgot the event after 30 minutes and could not recall it the next day, but could recall it about two minutes after it occurred, suggesting that short-term memory was still in use during these lapses. validity.

The experiments helped inform what we think happens during drunken blackouts today, supported by further experiments in animal models. The best idea we have at the moment is that drinking damages the hippocampus, an area of ​​the brain with a major role in learning and memory. The problem seems not to be recalling memories that exist but are unavailable, but that these long-term memories are not being formed.

“We think a big part of what’s going on is that alcohol suppresses the hippocampus, and it’s not able to create this continuous record of events,” Aaron White of the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism told the BBC. “It’s like a temporary gap in the tape.

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