Alcohol & Memory Loss, Why it’s so Easy to Forget After Drinking One too Many
Memory Loss and Alcohol go hand in hand, but why does the consumption of alcohol make it so easy for us to forget?
We’ve all been there, one too many drinks and suddenly a night of great memories turns into a blur, one that only encourages the hangover anxiety of ‘what did I do last night?’ Memory loss is caused by alcohol, but do we really understand why?
Now, you should remember that excessive drinking is dangerous, not just for your memory either. Alcohol is a poison, one that doesn’t mix too well with your body. Drinking in excess can damage your liver, your digestive system and even your cardiovascular system, it’s also an expensive hobby, one that should only be enjoyed in moderation. Therefore, if you do feel you have a problem with drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, please consult your doctor or your local authorities who will be able to point you in the right direction to receive help.
Memory loss through drink is dangerous
The way alcohol inhibits your memory puts you ask risk and can make you very vulnerable. It might be ‘funny’ to think back on your night and wonder what happened, but the memory loss caused by alcohol intake can have drastic consequences. Not knowing what happened isn’t necessarily a good thing, trust me.
Now I’ve done the telling off and I’ve pre-warned you about why you shouldn’t be drinking until you forget, here’s the fun bit – why does alcohol have such a significant impact on our memory?
New research published this month by Brown University have studied just how alcohol hijacks specific pathways in the brain. It is this hijacking that contributes to memory loss through alcohols ability to alter genes.
The research has been carried out on fruit flies and finds that alcohol can change proteins in the neurons that are exposed to alcohol. Changes in these neurons then change the way memory can form and move around the brain. In essence, the neurons are no longer able to transmit signals in a typical way, causing a reduction in the brains normal function, leading to memory loss. According to Science Daily, these finds have since been published in the Neuron science journal.
Professor Karla Kaun, the senior author of the research has asked many questions that in turn have inspired this research:
“One of the things I want to understand is why drugs of abuse can produce really rewarding memories when they’re actually neurotoxins. All drugs of abuse — alcohol, opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine — have adverse side effects. They make people nauseous or they give people hangovers, so why do we find them so rewarding? Why do we remember the good things about them and not the bad? My team is trying to understand on a molecular level what drugs of abuse are doing to memories and why they’re causing cravings.”
Why fruit flies?
You’re probably wondering why this research has been carried out on fruit flies and not humans, surely if we are trying to understand why alcohol makes us forget, it makes sense to research humans, right?
Fruit flies have proven to show addictive tendencies towards alcohol, therefore, once we tie this in with the small brains of fruit flies, it makes them perfect subjects for the research. According to the Science Daily report:
“Fruit flies have only 100,000 neurons, while humans have more than 100 billion. The smaller scale — plus the fact that generations of scientists have developed genetic tools to manipulate the activity of these neurons at the circuit and molecular level — made the fruit fly the perfect model organism for Kaun’s team to tease apart the genes and molecular signalling pathways involved in alcohol reward memories, she said. Led by postdoctoral researcher Emily Petruccelli, who is now an assistant professor with her own lab at Southern Illinois University, the team used genetic tools to selectively turn off key genes while training the flies where to find alcohol. This enabled them to see what proteins were required for this reward behaviour.”
Simply put, the research team have been able to use the smaller neuron networks within the flies to pinpoint and modify the exact genes that the team wanted to explore further. Fruit flies have allowed the team to do this very successfully.
As stated, the findings state that alcohol seems to change proteins within neurons that are responsible for transmitting messages around our bodies. These changes make it harder for memories to form, contributing to memory loss as a result of drinking alcohol.
According to the Science Daily report:
“One of the proteins responsible for the flies’ preference for alcohol is Notch, the researchers found. Notch is the first ‘domino’ in a signalling pathway involved in embryo development, brain development and adult brain function in humans and all other animals. Molecular signaling pathways are not unlike a cascade of dominos — when the first domino falls (in this case, the biological molecule activates), it triggers more that trigger more and so on. One of the downstream dominos in the signaling pathway affected by alcohol is a gene called dopamine-2-like receptor, which makes a protein on neurons that recognizes dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter.”
In lay terms, alcohol seems to trigger a series of events that stops signalling pathways in the brain from operating normally, through its ability to change dopamine-2-like receptors. The change is small, but it’s enough to totally change the way the brain operates on a temporary basis.
Of course, there’s no hard evidence to suggest that the process observed in the fruit flies will translate directly to that seen in humans, however, as Professor Kaun states:
“If this works the same way in humans, one glass of wine is enough to activate the pathway, but it returns to normal within an hour. After three glasses, with an hour break in between, the pathway doesn’t return to normal after 24 hours. We think this persistence is likely what is changing the gene expression in memory circuits. Just something to keep in mind the next time you split a bottle of wine with a friend or spouse.”
A small amount of alcohol should trigger this effect, though the brain looks to be able to recover from this within an hour or so. Prolonged alcohol use however, over a period of hours does mean that memory loss can still occur for as long as 24 hours.
As it stands, there is more research to be done here, however, Professor Kaun and the team have found something quite significant within the brains of the fruit flies that could go a long way for helping us to explore just how our brains respond to alcohol. The implications of this will go on to help the research team better understand how addiction works, which could in turn go on to help health professionals help those with addiction problems more efficiently.
If nothing else, we hope that this has inspired you to think a little more about your drinking and that it helps you understand just how easy it is to experience memory loss from drinking one too many.
Brown University. “Just a few drinks can change how memories are formed.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 October 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/10/181025142050.htm>.