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What Is an Alcohol Blackout?

Teen girl asleep in bed with an empty bottle of alcohol in her hand

Hey teenagers, would you ever tell a friend or classmate to clobber you over the head so hard that you would lapse into unconsciousness for at least five minutes? Hopefully not. But the effects on your brain from such an assault are similar to those seen if you “black out” while drinking booze.

Alcohol Steals Your Memories

Alcohol-induced amnesia, more commonly known as an alcohol blackout, is a state marked by lost memories and missing chunks of time after consuming numerous alcoholic beverages. There are two categories of alcohol blackouts: fragmentary, which involves partial memory loss during the duration of consuming alcohol; and en banc, which is characterized by complete memory loss of the events that occurred while drinking.

To understand the mechanics of an alcohol blackout, you must first know how the brain’s memory process works. All of the input that is recorded by your senses is processed by your brain, which then “encodes” the information so that it can be stored in your short-term memory. If the information is consciously or subconsciously “rehearsed,” it can then be encoded into the part of the brain which stores long-term memory where it can be retrieved at a later time.

Scientists have discovered that alcohol disrupts the encoding process which takes place between the neural areas housing short-term memory and long-term memory. This explains why people who are in the midst of a blackout can still interact with people and perform simple tasks but cannot remember what they said or did just minutes ago.

Exactly What Causes Alcohol Blackouts?

While a copious amount of alcohol is usually a major contributor to a blackout, it is not the only factor. A person’s weight, gender, and amount of food in one’s stomach can also impact the likelihood and severity of a blackout.

But perhaps the most important variable affecting alcohol blackouts is the rate of increase in an individual’s blood alcohol concentration. Therefore, someone who has more alcohol in his or her system may not be as susceptible to a blackout as someone who chugs several drinks in rapid succession.

Are Alcohol Blackouts a Teenage Problem?

While the majority of drinkers have experienced an alcohol blackout at least once in their lives, the prevalence of this event is much higher among adolescents. That was the conclusion of a study conducted by scientists at the University of California-San Diego and published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research in 2014.

Researchers examined longitudinal data from a study of over eight thousand people in England and focused on the respondents who admitted to alcohol consumption between the ages of 15 and 19 years old. Of these 1400 people, only five percent of them never reported experiencing alcohol blackouts during that timeframe.

How to Spot and Deal With Alcohol Blackouts

While there is no instantaneous method for determining whether someone is suffering from an alcohol blackout, a good rule of thumb is to look for behaviors associated with a stereotypical drunk person. These may include slurred speech, impaired vision, difficulty walking or standing, or poor judgment. You can also ask the person to recall something they said or did ten minutes prior, and if they cannot, it is a strong indicator of an alcohol blackout.

The best way to deal with friends or acquaintances who are blacking out is to encourage them to stop drinking. If possible, try to get them to eat some food or drink some water while they rest, but be sure and monitor them so that they do not succumb to alcohol poisoning.

Though they are not sure precisely how it works, researchers believe that repeated alcohol blackouts can cause long-term damage to the brain that can lead to mental deficits in adulthood. That sounds logical – after all, if you were beaten into unconsciousness on a regular basis, you would probably start to notice some brain issues, right? So if someone you know seems to suffer from alcohol blackouts frequently, it might be a sign that he or she has a substance use disorder and should seek help.

Contact Next Generation Village today for more information on how to help a teen who is struggling with alcohol dependence.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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