What Happens In Your Brain When You Get “Black Out” Drunk?

Not everybody falls victim to this, but “forgetting” the events from a night of drinking is certainly possible. Binge a little too hard on a night out and you’ll wake up, most likely with a hangover, and a fuzzy recollection of everything that went down with all those drinks you had. Keep reading, though, and you may not be able to forget what’s actually happening to your brain on those nights out.

According to George Koob, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, heavy drinking can legitimate erase parts of your memory. “At roughly twice the legal limit, a blood alcohol content of .16, you become vulnerable for a blackout ― although this varies,” Koob said. “In a blackout, alcohol shuts down the ability of the brain to consolidate memories.”

Aside from all that alcohol, an empty stomach is the first piece of a blackout recipe, where your body and brain are more susceptible to ethanol, a compound found in those alcoholic beverages.  “When the stomach is empty, peak blood ethanol levels are reached between 30 and 90 minutes after ingestion,” says Benjamin M. Kaplan, an internal medicine physician from Orlando Health Internal Medicine Faculty Practice. And this is the prime opportunity for you to experience that “one too many” moment, having that one shot or drink that puts you over the edge before you even realized how impaired you were.

Next, alcohol begins to affect your gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, receptor. The brain is now likely to stop transmitting signals that solidify memory. Alcohol also inhibits glutamate, which results in you feeling calmer, as well as releasing inhibitors such as dopamine and serotonin, prompting those happy go lucky feelings that seem to come with drinking. Now, your brain is experiencing positive reinforcements as GABA and glutamine receptors are activated in the reward centers of the brain.

“In the blackout zone, you could be dancing on a table in front of your boss, but the next day you’re not going to remember a thing,” Koob says. But a blackout is “not permanent damage to the brain, but rather a gap in time.”

So, how do you recognize and prevent that blackout tipping point?

“One marker I use is dramatic and rapid swings in emotionality,” Koob said. “One moment, your friend might be praising you and telling you how much they care. The next, they turn, and it’s the complete opposite emotion, like anger directed at you.”

According to Koob, the best tactic is simply to practice moderation when drinking, as most symptoms and severity can vary from person to person. Of course, body weight, height, and overall size will impact how heavily and easily alcohol impacts an individual, so it seems the only real remedy is recognizing your own limits and being cautious enough to moderate how much you drink in an effort to avoid binging altogether. 

“You set the stage for cancer, heart problems, liver problems, even permanent brain deficits,” Koob said. “Something everyone has to learn if they want to drink is their own limits.”

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