Can Alcohol Damage My Memories?

The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that the majority of Americans aged 12 and older actively drink alcohol, and nearly a quarter of Americans engaged in binge drinking in the previous month. When alcohol consumption exceeds the body’s ability to absorb it, people experience drunkenness and increase their risk for physical and mental health issues. Among the many issues associated with alcohol abuse, the effects on memory are often the most common. Inebriation certainly impairs short-term memory, but it can also negatively affect other forms of memory as well.

What Is Memory

Memory is the sum total of experiences, ideas and information that we remember, and it creates a framework from which to learn, adapt and build. The health of a person’s memory can be measured in part by its ability to encode, store, retain and recall, and what people remember influences current and future behavior. On a neurobiological level, memory involves connections in the brain, and recalling a memory requires neurons involved in the experience to fire synchronously. Learning is the development of synchronous sets of neural firing while memory is the storage and recall of those sets. It is helpful to think of memory as a puzzle that the brain reassembles to recreate the picture and not as a traditional library or filing system. Likewise, different types of memory exist including short-term, long-term, explicit, semantic and collective. All of which can be affected by heavy alcohol consumptions.

Alcohol and the Brain

Alcohol abuse can affect the brain in several ways, which studies suggest might include the following:

  • Disruptions in the hippocampus involve neurotransmissions related to long-term potentiation (strengthened synapses based on activity patterns).
  • Impairments in the cerebellum affect motor function and coordination and alter thought process and inhibition.
  • Neurochemical alterations in the anterior cingulate and blood-oxygen decrease in the frontal and parietal regions.
  • Though it does not actually kill brain cells, alcohol does damage the dendrites (ends of neurons) used to convey messages between neurons.

In terms of memory, excessive alcohol consumption and related neurobiological alterations impact both information storage and retrieval in various adverse ways including the following:

  • Impaired episodic memory (e.g., specific events) via coding, cue recall, free recall and the formation of new memories are one effect.
  • Blackouts, which occur when blood alcohol concentrations distort neurons in the hippocampus, are an example of impaired episodic memory.
  • Effects on the central nervous system (CNS) severely impair the retrieval of memory that requires conscious awareness (explicit) and the storage of semantic memories.
  • The dissociative effects of alcohol disrupt the temporary storage of minor information (short-term memory), cognitive functioning and visual memory.
  • Intoxicated individuals are more susceptible to intrusion errors, irrelevant information, delayed recall and mental interference.

In 2014, Time noted a new study that suggested just 2.5 drinks per day could accelerate memory loss by six years in middle-aged men. Hard spirits like vodka and whiskey were associated with the fastest memory declines.

Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

In 2004, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) noted that the effects of heavy drinking range from basic memory slips to serious debilitating conditions, and the most common indicator of alcohol-related damage is brain shrinkage. The study noted several other important points including the following:

  • The risk for serious and long-lasting neural changes increases the longer a person continues to abuse alcohol.
  • Damage to the brain might be a direct effect of alcohol abuse or an indirect effect stemming from poor health or other complications.
  • Alcohol-related thiamine deficiencies can lead to more serious brain disorders like Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

Per researchers at the University at Buffalo and elsewhere, damage to the dendrites is largely reversible though the process does involve changes to the neuronal structure. Other damage, particularly disorders that the alcoholism indirectly caused, can be much more difficult to reverse. Alcoholism can also have lasting effects on young people as their brains develop or with babies when their mothers drink during pregnancies or breastfeeding. These many risks to the brain and memory epitomize the need to avoid any delays in addressing addiction.

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse

The 2012 National Survey on Substance Abuse Treatment Services (N-SSATS) revealed that more than 60% of all rehab admissions involve alcohol addiction. Professional treatment is the most effective way to address substance abuse problems, and its comprehensive approach can include positive life skills, behavioral therapies, motivational interviewing, relapse-prevention tools, possible medication therapies and integrated care for co-occurring mental and physical health disorders. A strong social support network is also important for lasting recoveries, and rehab centers typically work with families to address strains, dysfunction and support strategies.

If you or a loved needs help, please call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day. Our admissions coordinators can answer questions, make recommendations and even check health insurance policies for treatment benefits. Whatever you might need, please call now.

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