Alcohol Memory Loss

Alcohol Memory Loss

Alcohol Memory Loss


It’s been estimated that half of all people who drink have had a blackout at least once. The likelihood of having a blackout varies depending on a person’s tolerance, body composition, and various circumstances. Finally, long-term heavy drinking can also induce Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a severe cognitive disorder linked to the effects of alcohol on memory.


In fact, many people who have blackouts do so after engaging in a behavior known as high-intensity drinking, which is defined as drinking at levels that are at least twice as high as the binge-drinking thresholds for women and men. More specifically, those in the study who reported higher levels of alcohol consumption were more likely to miss appointments and important dates like birthdays—or forget to pay bills on time. Even in cases where those in the study stayed within a healthy drinking limit, researchers found a significant increase in memory loss issues. Additionally, many older people also experience a slow degeneration of the cells in the hippocampus. But when you add the effects of heavy alcohol use, memory loss can be very serious. Chronic alcohol abuse has been linked to a variety of brain abnormalities in numerous studies.

In this factsheet, we will take a sober look at this common but deeply concerning consequence of alcohol misuse. The hippocampus plays a significant role in helping people form and maintain memories. When normal nerve activity slows down, short-term memory loss can occur. We do know that women are more likely to experience other effects of alcohol, such as liver cirrhosis, heart damage, nerve damage and other diseases caused by alcohol. Research also indicates that a person who has experienced one blackout is more likely to have blackouts in the future.

Reversible causes of memory loss

This heightened responsiveness is known as long–term potentiation . Equal numbers of men and women reported experiencing blackouts, despite the fact that the men drank significantly more often and more heavily than the women. This outcome suggests that regardless of the amount of alcohol consumption, females—a group infrequently studied in the literature on blackouts—are at greater risk than males for experiencing blackouts.

  • A vitamin B-12 deficiency — common in older adults — can cause memory problems.
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  • Unfortunately, memory loss is not reversible, but there is treatment available for those people who believe they have a problem with drinking.
  • Subsequent research provided additional evidence suggesting a link between blackouts and rapidly rising BACs.
  • Repeated blackouts are a clear sign of excessive drinking and potential memory and cognitive impairment.

In these cases, some memories may be lost while the brain may also lose its ability to create new memories. In this case, the physical effect of alcohol on the body and brain is directly to blame for this type of damage to the circuitry in the brain related to memory. These disorders can be caused by stroke, head trauma, tumors, or other conditions that cause damage to parts of the brain involved in memory.

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If the person with ARBI is aware of their memory limits, they can learn how to deal with them. This can result in information being muddled or incorrect, and is sometimes called ‘confabulation’. Importantly, the confabulations are caused by memory failures – they are not lies. If you’re unable to control how much you drink, avoid drinking altogether.

alcohol on memory

The use of these techniques will no doubt yield important information regarding the mechanisms underlying alcohol–induced memory impairments in the coming years. Memory formation and retrieval are highly influenced by factors such as attention and motivation (e.g., Kensinger et al. 2003). With the aid of neuroimaging techniques, researchers may be able to examine the impact of alcohol on brain activity related to these factors, and then determine how alcohol contributes to memory impairments. One of the most damaging side effects of chronic alcohol abuse to memory isWernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome , and this is a condition directly related to alcohol and memory loss. WKS is a disorder of the brain that’s the result of a deficiency in vitamin B1.

White and colleagues observed that, among 50 undergraduate students with a history of blackouts, only 3 students reported using other drugs during the night of their most recent blackout, and marijuana was the drug in each case. Doctors have identified several ways alcohol affects the brain and memory. People who binge drink or have alcohol use disorder may experience short- and long-term memory loss.

Alcohol and Memory Loss: What are the Causes of Alcohol Related Dementia?

The information and materials contained on this website are not intended to constitute a comprehensive guide concerning all aspects of the therapy, product or treatment described on the website. The State of Victoria and the Department of Health shall not bear any liability for reliance by any user on the materials contained on this website. Heavy alcohol use contributes to a shrinkage of the brain similar to Alzheimer’s disease, which is characterized by memory loss.

Like other brain regions, the hippocampus does not operate in isolation. Information processing in the hippocampus depends on coordinated input from a variety of other structures, which gives alcohol and other drugs additional opportunities to disrupt hippocampal functioning. One brain region that is central to hippocampal functioning is a small structure in the fore brain known as the medial septum (Givens et al. 2000). The medial septum sends rhythmic excitatory and inhibitory signals to the hippocampus, causing rhythmic changes in the activity of hippocampal pyramidal cells. In electroencephalograph recordings, this rhythmic activity, referred to as the theta rhythm, occurs within a frequency of roughly 6 to 9 cycles per second in actively behaving rats. The theta rhythm is thought to act as a gatekeeper, increasing or decreasing the likelihood that information entering the hippocampus from cortical structures will be processed (Orr et al. 2001).


A person’s memory can be wiped out by drinking alcohol, either entirely or in part. A person might believe they’ve lost chunks of time after drinking and wake up not remembering events from the previous night. Alcohol-induced blackouts are similar to alcohol intoxication and memory loss. They cause an amnesia-like condition in which portions or all of the time spent drinking is forgotten.

The pattern of H.M.’s impairments also forced a re–examination of models of long–term memory storage. Was able to retrieve long–term memories formed roughly a year or more before his surgery, he could not recall events that transpired within the year preceding his surgery. This strongly suggests that the transfer of information into long–term storage actually takes place over several years, with the hippocampus being necessary for its retrieval for the first year or so.


Markers such as the P3 can help identify people who may be at greatest risk for developing problems with alcohol. The good news is that most alcoholics with cognitive impairment show at least some improvement in brain structure and functioning within a year of abstinence, though some people take much longer (35–37). Clinicians must consider a variety of treatment methods to help people stop drinking and to recover from alcohol–related brain impairments, and tailor these treatments to the individual patient.

Although 0.5 g/kg did not produce a significant change in the firing of hippocampal pyramidal cells, 1.0 and 1.5 g/kg produced significant suppression of firing during a 1–hour testing session following alcohol administration. The dose–dependent suppression of CA1 pyramidal cells is consistent with the dose–dependent effects of alcohol on episodic memory formation. In many cases, unexpected memory loss has to do with factors that are beyond an individual’s control, such as head trauma or a disease like Alzheimer’s. However, amnestic disorders – that is, those that result in memory loss or damage to memory functions – can also be caused by deliberate human behaviors, such as drinking alcohol.

More than 30 years ago, both Ryback and Goodwin and colleagues speculated that alcohol might impair memory formation by disrupting activity in the hippocampus. This speculation was based on the observation that acute alcohol exposure produces a syndrome of memory impairments similar in many ways to the impairments produced by hippocampal damage. Specifically, both acute alcohol exposure and hippocampal damage impair the ability to form new long–term, explicit memories but do not affect short–term memory storage or, in general, the recall of information from long–term storage. In a similar study, Ryback examined the impact of alcohol on memory in seven hospitalized alcoholics given access to alcohol over the course of several days.

Ketamine has been explored as a sober living houses for depression and other conditions. Alcohol affects short-term memory by slowing down how nerves communicate with each other in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. Some people experience what doctors call a blackout when they drink too much alcohol and don’t remember key details. Memory and other thinking problems have many possible causes, including depression, an infection, or medication side effects.

Questions about blackouts during routine medical visits could serve as an important simple screen for the risk of alcohol-related harms. Memory is divided is into retrospective (long-term) and prospective or working (short-term) memory. Retrospective memory is remembering all events and episodes that have happened in our lifetime.

Blackouts represent episodes of amnesia, during which subjects are capable of participating even in salient, emotionally charged events—as well as more mundane events—that they later cannot remember . Formal research into the nature of alcohol–induced blackouts began in the 1940s with the work of E.M. Jellinek’s initial characterization of blackouts was based on data collected from a survey of Alcoholics Anonymous members. Noting that recovering alcoholics frequently reported having experienced alcohol–induced amnesia while they were drinking, Jellinek concluded that the occurrence of blackouts is a powerful indicator of alcoholism. If recreational drugs were tools, alcohol would be a sledgehammer.

This can be permanent, as alcohol can cause changes to the nerves themselves. Deficiencies in B6 and B12, thiamine, folate, niacin, and vitamin E can make it worse. Take the first step toward addiction treatment by contacting us today.

Keep track of tasks, appointments and other events in a notebook, calendar or electronic planner. You might even repeat each entry out loud as you write it down to help keep it in your memory. Keep your wallet, keys, glasses and other essential items in a set place in your home so they are easy to find. Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit organization and proceeds from Web advertising help support our mission. Mayo Clinic does not endorse any of the third party products and services advertised. You'll soon start receiving the latest Mayo Clinic health information you requested in your inbox.

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