What actually happens when you get drunk?

According to several studies, a large number of people (66 percent, in a study of college students) have experienced becoming “blackout drunk,” forgetting parts of the time – but this is a topic we didn’t cover until recently understand a lot.

One of the problems with discovering the subject (using humans directly instead of an animal model) is that it now requires subjects who have blacked out to stumble into your office drunk, or be forced to rely on their memories of times when they were, uh, blackout drunk. In the past, however, you could always choose secret option number three: an ethically questionable experiment where you shower alcoholics with alcohol and run tests during the ensuing blackout.

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

In the first part of the study, subjects were asked about their own blackout experiences and how others described their behavior during these events. Perhaps surprisingly, he found that people seemed to be largely in control of their faculties during these events.

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

“About one-fourth of the subjects had ended up in a place at least once while drinking without remembering how they got there. Often this involved traveling long distances over a period of a day or more. To cover such distances to bridge, the person must clearly have had some control over his faculties.”

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

Friends they had seen in these states described them as drunk, but they behaved normally. Talking to these patients yielded a lot of intriguing information about blackouts (did you know that you can become aware of a blackout while awake?” One subject found himself dancing without remembering what he had done in the past. had done six hours”).

However, where these experiments crossed an ethical line that is unlikely to be crossed today was when Goodwin gave alcohol to the patients.

Goodwin took the subjects—some with a history of blackouts, some without—and gave them a pint of bourbon to drink for four hours. During this time, they were tested for “distant 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 the drinking). period)”.

During the experiment, the volunteers were shown a series of porn films and other toys. Not recognizing these things the next day determined whether they had blacked out or not. During this experiment he observed with his own eyes how volunteers could behave quite normally during a blackout.

In another experiment, he held a frying pan in his hand and asked the participants if they were hungry. Hearing their answer, he told them that the pan was filled with dead mice. Interestingly, he found that the subjects forgot about this event after 30 minutes and could not remember the next day, but about two minutes after it happened, suggesting that short-term memory was still intact during these blackouts.

The experiments helped inform us about what we think is happening during drunken blackouts these days, supported by further experimentation in animal models. The best idea we have at the moment is that drinking affects the hippocampus, a brain region that plays an important role in learning and memory. The problem seems to be a failure, not to evoke memories that are there but inaccessible, but not to create these long-term memories in the first place.

“We think a big part of what’s happening is that alcohol depresses the hippocampus, and it’s not able to create this running record of events,” Aaron White of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the US told me. to the BBC. “It’s like a temporary hole in the tire.”

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