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Under the Influence: The Impact of Adolescent Drinking and Blackouts

Image: Gerry Selian
Adolescence is a pivotal time for brain development, with lots of growth and changes happening. It is also when many teens and young adults begin experimenting with alcohol, often not knowing how harmful it can be. One serious consequence of alcohol consumption is experiencing blackouts, where memories of events during drinking can be completely lost.

Written By Julieta Asenjo, B.S.



Key Takeaways


  • Adolescence is critical for brain development, heightening vulnerability to alcohol.

  • Alcohol disrupts memory formation and retrieval by interfering with brain neurotransmitters.

  • Blackouts pose immediate risks (risky behaviors) and long-term consequences (cognitive impairments).

  • Safer alcohol use: Know limits, drink slowly, stay hydrated, avoid binge drinking.

  • Education and support are crucial for guiding adolescents toward healthier choices.


Introduction


Imagine waking up after a night of festivities, only to find your memories of the previous evening fragmented and scattered. This experience, known as an alcohol-induced blackout, damages memory by disrupting the brain's ability to transfer information from short-term to long-term, leading to gaps in memory that can have serious consequences on cognitive function. Adolescents are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol because their brains are still developing. In this article, we will explore the process behind alcohol-induced blackouts, their impact on memory, and strategies for promoting safer alcohol use among young individuals.


How Does Memory Work?


Memory operates much like a three-act play: encoding, where new information is learned; storage, where this information is maintained over time; and retrieval, where it is recalled as needed. At the heart of this process is the hippocampus, which plays a starring role in encoding and consolidating new memories. Memory formation and storage occur across several stages, starting with sensory memory, which lasts only a few seconds. The information then moves into short-term memory, where it can persist for seconds to minutes, depending on whether it is actively rehearsed.


What is a Blackout?


An alcohol-induced blackout is when you can't remember what happened during a period of heavy drinking. It can be partial or total memory loss for events that occurred while you were intoxicated. This happens because alcohol messes with how your brain makes and retrieves memories. When you drink, alcohol quickly gets into your bloodstream and travels to your brain. In the hippocampus—the part of your brain that helps with memory—alcohol messes with the chemicals that neurons use to communicate, called neurotransmitters. These chemicals are like messengers that help neurons talk to each other across tiny gaps called synapses. This disruption makes it hard for your brain to form new memories or keep track of what's happening. So, during a blackout, you might seem fine and do things, but later, you won't remember any of it once you're sober.


Types of Blackouts


  • Fragmentary Blackouts: In these instances, you will experience partial memory loss. They may remember some details of their actions or events but have significant gaps in their memory.

  • En Bloc Blackouts: En bloc blackouts involve complete memory loss for a specific period. During these episodes, you will have no recollection of events, conversations, or actions that took place while they were intoxicated.

Vulnerability of the Adolescent Brain


From the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), we learned that about 13.2 million young people aged 12 to 20 have tried alcohol. While teens don't drink as often as adults, when they do drink, many of them have a lot at once. In the span of a month, 3.2 million teens in this age group reported binge drinking, meaning they consumed a large amount of alcohol in one go.


According to research from the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, alcohol has a more pronounced effect on learning and memory before the age of 25. During adolescence, your brain is still growing in important areas like the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex, each serving specific roles in how you think and feel:


  • Hippocampus: The hippocampus, in the middle of your brain, helps with remembering things and finding your way around. It turns short-term memories into long-term ones so you can recall what you've learned and experienced.

  • Amygdala: Deep in your brain's side parts, the amygdala deals with emotions like fear, aggression, and pleasure. It decides how you react emotionally and behave in response to events and feelings.

  • Prefrontal Cortex: Behind your forehead, the prefrontal cortex is like the brain's boss. It manages thinking skills such as making decisions, planning ahead, solving problems, and controlling impulses. It also weighs risks and rewards, handles emotions, and makes tough choices.


Alcohol affects these brain functions by interfering with neurotransmitter communication. Since your brain is still forming these pathways, alcohol can have a lasting effect on how well you can recall information in the future. Taking care of alcohol drinking now can help protect your memory and cognitive abilities as you continue to grow and learn.


Image: The Scientist


Immediate and Long-Term Consequences


During blackouts, people can do things and make decisions they won't remember later. These memory lapses can have serious immediate and long-term effects. Immediate risks may include:


  • Risky Behavior: Without the ability to remember what they're doing, you may take risks that you usually wouldn't, such as driving, engaging in unsafe sexual activities, or getting into physical altercations.

  • Lack of Awareness: They might not be aware of their surroundings or the consequences of their actions, making them vulnerable to accidents, injuries, or being taken advantage of by others.

  • Legal and Social Consequences: Forgetting actions taken during a blackout can lead to serious legal issues, like being unaware of committing a crime, or social problems, such as damaging relationships with friends or family.

  • Inability to Seek Help: If a person gets into trouble or needs medical assistance, they might not be able to call for help or remember to take care of themselves.


Long-term consequences may include cognitive impairments, reduced academic performance, and an increased risk of developing alcohol use disorders later in life. A study from the NEXT Generation Health Study, Wave 4, involving 1,463 drinkers, found that more frequent alcohol blackouts were linked to more problems.


For those who didn't have blackouts, 26% had hangovers and only 4% missed work or class. In contrast, among those who had 1-2 blackouts, 78% had hangovers and 35% missed work or class. For people with three or more blackouts, 94% had hangovers and 65% missed work or class. Frequent blackouts also led to more regretful actions, arguments with friends, property damage, trouble with police, injuries, and alcohol overdoses.


Strategies For Safer Alcohol Use


  1. Know Your Limits: Understand how much alcohol affects you personally and stick to a limit that keeps you in control of your actions and memories.

  2. Drink Slowly: Pace yourself by sipping your drink slowly. This gives your body time to process the alcohol and reduces the risk of blackouts.

  3. Stay Hydrated: Alternate between alcoholic drinks and water to stay hydrated. Dehydration can worsen the effects of alcohol.

  4. Eat Before Drinking: Having a meal before drinking can slow down alcohol absorption into your bloodstream, reducing its impact.

  5. Avoid Binge Drinking: Instead of drinking a lot in a short time, spread out your drinks over the course of the evening.

  6. Avoid Mixing Substances: Combining alcohol with other drugs or medications can increase the risk of blackouts and other harmful effects.

  7. Have a Plan: Arrange for a safe way to get home before you start drinking. Don't drink and drive.


Conclusion


Alcohol-induced blackouts are not simply a consequence of drinking too much; they represent a serious health risk, particularly for adolescents whose brains are still developing. By understanding the mechanisms behind blackouts and their potential long-term effects, we can advocate for interventions that protect young individuals from the immediate and lasting consequences of alcohol misuse. Empowering adolescents with knowledge and support is essential in promoting healthy decision-making and safeguarding their cognitive health as they navigate this critical stage of life.


If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or any related issues, here are helpful links you can visit for support:


National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): For information on the causes, consequences, prevention, and treatment of alcohol-related problems from the lead U.S. research agency on alcohol and health: (301) 443-3860.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): For information about substance abuse prevention and treatment services: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): For information about other drug problems that often coexist with alcohol problems: (301) 443-1124.

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): For information on problems such as anxiety and depression that can coexist with alcohol problems: (866) 615-6464.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Phone: 212-870-3400. Meeting finder app for iOS and Android smartphones: Meeting Guide.


Frequently Asked Questions


  1. What can parents and educators do to help prevent alcohol-induced blackouts among adolescents? Parents and educators can help by educating adolescents about the risks of alcohol use, encouraging healthy decision-making, and having open communication about alcohol-related topics. Providing access to support resources and discussing strategies for safe alcohol consumption are also important.

  2. What are some effective intervention strategies or programs that have been shown to reduce alcohol misuse and blackouts among adolescents? Effective strategies include alcohol education programs in schools, encouraging parental involvement and communication, and providing access to counseling and support services.

  3. How do cultural or social factors influence adolescents' susceptibility to alcohol-induced blackouts? Cultural and social factors such as peer pressure, societal norms, and availability of alcohol can influence adolescents' drinking behaviors and susceptibility to blackouts. Cultural acceptance or normalization of heavy drinking may increase the likelihood of risky alcohol consumption.

  4. How do blackout episodes impact an adolescent's mental health and emotional well-being over time? Blackout episodes can contribute to feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety among adolescents. Over time, repeated blackouts can contribute to mental health issues and increase the likelihood of developing alcohol use disorders.


References

Crews, F., Vetreno, R., Broadwater, M., & Robinson, D. (2016). Adolescent Alcohol Exposure Persistently Impacts Adult Neurobiology and Behavior. Pharmacological Reviews, 68, 1074 - 1109. https://doi.org/10.1124/pr.115.012138.

Hingson, R., Zha, W., Simons-Morton, B., & White, A. (2016). Alcohol-Induced Blackouts as Predictors of Other Drinking Related Harms Among Emerging Young Adults. Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research, 40(4), 776–784. https://doi.org/10.1111/acer.13010

Jackson, J., Donaldson, D., & Dering, B. (2021). The morning after the night before: Alcohol-induced blackouts impair next day recall in sober young adults. PLoS ONE, 16. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0250827.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2023). Alcohol and the adolescent brain. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/alcohol-and-adolescent-brain

Silveri M. M. (2012). Adolescent brain development and underage drinking in the United States: identifying risks of alcohol use in college populations. Harvard review of psychiatry, 20(4), 189–200. https://doi.org/10.3109/10673229.2012.714642

White, A. (2003). What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain. Alcohol Research & Health, 27, 186 - 196.


 

About Julieta Asenjo, B.S.

My work is driven by a passion for scientific inquiry and effective communication. As a researcher and writer at BioLife Health Research Center I conduct research, analyze data, and develop the narrative of articles and books on human cognition and well-being. I aim to provide insights that positively impact health outcomes and further our understanding of life science research. I am excited to continue my academic journey and contribute to advancements that benefit global health initiatives.

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