Do you remember what you did last night? Have you ever not remembered what you did after drinking? Drinking alcohol affects the brain and can cause lasting damage including, but not limited to, slips in memory. These memory slips can be due to lack of blood flow to brain areas that are important for memory consolidation and are commonly known as blackouts. Contrary to what popular belief, blackouts often occur in social drinkers and don’t seem to be related to age or level of alcohol dependence.
Blackouts and the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) rate
Amnesia, or memory dysfunction, can begin to occur even with as few as one or two drinks containing alcohol. However, as the amount of alcohol intake increases so does the probability of memory impairment. Although heavy drinking alone will not always cause blackouts, heavy drinking of alcohol on an empty stomach or “chugging” alcoholic drinks often does cause blackouts.
The estimated BAC (blood alcohol content) range for blackouts begins at levels .14%- .20%. Individuals who reached high BAC levels slowly experienced far less common occurrences of blackouts. Additionally, while blackouts lead to forgetting entire events that happened while intoxicated, some individuals experience an inability to recall only parts of an event or episode (these are often called brownouts).
Blackouts can occur to anyone who drinks too much too fast. In a survey of college students, males and females experienced an equal number of blackouts, although men consumed a significantly more alcohol.
Although brain damage could potentially occur from heavy alcohol consumption, there is no evidence that blackouts are caused by brain damage per se. However, if brain damage is caused from excessive alcohol use, some studies show improvements in brain function with as little as a year of abstinence. Regardless of the possibility of reversing any effects, alcohol use causes damage in different areas of the body (including the liver), and those damages have been shown to occur more quickly among females.
Co-authored by Jamie Felzer
1. White, Aaron M., Signer, Matthew L., Kraus, Courtney L. and Swartzwelder, H. Scott(2004). Experiential Aspects of Alcohol-Induced Blackouts Among College Students, The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse,30:1,205 — 224
2. Alcohol Alert (2004) . Alcoholic Brain Damage. Alcohol Research & Health, Vol. 27.
The brain damage left behind after long-term cocaine use can apparently tell us quite a bit about how well a cocaine addict will do in addiction treatment – as long as we assess the right kind of damage.
Different kinds of brain matter
I’ve talked before about the fact that use of cocaine, and other drugs, can bring about long-term changes in the brain that sometimes include the actual destruction of neural pathways. What you may not know is that brain matter consists of several different components including the cell bodies of neurons (known as gray matter) and the tracts of axons that transmit messages across the brain (known as white matter). There are other parts as well, but those are the two important ones to know for this article.
Gray matter is important because brain transmission isn’t possible without a cell body, which is its operations center. But white matter is equally important because without it, the messages don’t get anywhere. It’s like having a telephone without a communication network – The phone can work perfectly and no one will ever hear you speak.
Until recently, it’s been pretty hard to measure the structure of white matter because it consists of very thin bands that twist and turn throughout the brain. But recent advancements in fMRI imaging and analysis have allowed us to look at it by measuring the direction in which water molecules flow through white matter. It’s called DTI (Diffusion Tensor Imaging) and it’s pretty complicated, but all you need to know is that it lets us know a lot about the integrity of axons in the brain.
White matter and cocaine
Use of cocaine has already been shown to cause damage to brain white matter. A recent study conducted at Yale examined whether the degree of damage can tell us anything about how well people will do in addiction treatment. Researchers took 16 participants and gave them a host of tests as well as some brain scans before sending them off to an 8 week treatment program. The addiction treatment utilized was outpatient and provided different individuals with different combinations of CBT, medication (antabuse), individual, and group therapy. At the end of treatment, the number of clean urine tests (out of 56 total tests) was used as a measure of treatment success. The more clean urines, the better, something I think we need to adopt overall instead of the all-or-nothing view that abstinence is the only form of improvement.
The bottom line: Using three different measures, the researchers found that individuals with more damaged white matter provided less clean urines throughout the addiction-treatment period. Another important fact – the damages areas that were found to be associated with treatment success were found all over the brain. Interestingly, brain damage wasn’t associated with the length of drug use, but it may have been associated with the extent of use (in terms of years and amount used), something the researchers didn’t report on.
Brain matter and addiction treatment outcomes
One day, we’ll have a battery of tests that will let us tailor treatment more effectively towards specific addicts. Genetics, brains scans, and more, will be able to tell us where an addict is especially weak so that we can focus on those areas first. Some may need specific help with impulsivity and weakened learning systems whereas others may be better off with treatment that addresses past trauma and an oversensitive stress response system.
As this research shows, brain scans can offer us a glimpse into the aspects of an addict’s brain that have been compromised. But we’re not there yet – right now, all we know is that certain genes, brain function patters, and experiences, are associated with a greater risk for addictive behavior or a lower chance of recovery. Getting better at more specifically tailoring treatment is still a little farther than we’d like.
Jiansong Xu, Elise E DeVito, Patrick D Worhunsky, Kathleen M Carroll, Bruce J Rounsaville & Marc N Potenza (2010). White Matter Integrity is Associated with Treatment Outcome Measures in Cocaine Dependence, Neuropsychopharmacology 35, 1541–1549.
Some great, informative articles about addiction, alcohol and smoking, as well as some about Heroin. We also have some new sites with links listed here so give us your feedback on what you like!
Caron Chit Chat: According to a world renowned addiction treatment center, the female problem drinker in Dallas is most likely between the ages of 25-39, single, prefers wine and beer to hard liquor, drinks more with her girlfriends than on a date or with work colleagues and may not sleep well.
PhysOrg.com: Binge drinking can cause long lasting damage to an important area in the brains of adolescent monkeys, suggesting that binge drinking could have serious effects on memory formation in adolescents.
HealthDay: One in five college students admitted to drunk driving. Additionally, more than 40% of twenty year old adolescents rode in a car with an intoxicated driver.
Medical News Today: Young people in the two years after high school who are in romantic relationships are less likely than their peers to report heavy drinking and marijuana use. Marriage lowers the odds that people will get drunk frequently or smoke pot.
HealthDay: As teens become adults, their tendency toward impulsive behaviors decreases as well as the amount of alcohol they consume. Teenagers tend to mature as they get older as well as drink less alcohol.
SAMHSA: Around 508,000 adolescents aged 12-17 in the United States drink alcohol; 641,000 use illicit drugs; and more than 1 million smoke cigarettes on any average day. This data was conducted in a national survey sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The Sydney Morning Herald: Heroin users regularly land in hospitals, and heroin use is often fatal. This study traced all hospital admissions of a group of heroin users over 10 years, to mid 2004.
REUTERS: According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, around 3.7 million people in the US have used heroin sometime in their lives. Prescription heroin may help addicts to stay off street drugs.
PhysOrg.com: Increasing cigarette taxes could be an effective way to reduce smoking among alcohol or drug abusers or people with mental disorders. A ten percent increase in cigarette pricing resulted in an eighteen percent decline in smoking among alcohol or drug abusers or individuals with mental disorder.
REUTERS: Tobacco companies and retailers say in a lawsuit that anti-smoking signs in New York City showing a decaying tooth, diseased lungs and a damaged brain violate cigarette vendors’ free speech and should be removed.