Blacking out is clinically referred to as alcohol-induced amnesia. Drinking too much, passing out, and then waking up with no memory of what happened while you were drinking is blacking out. Passing out is not the same as blacking out. Colloquially, passing out from drinking alcohol means a person fell into a deep sleep from drinking alcohol while others kept drinking. Alternately, blacking out means the person didn’t pass out but kept drinking. The next day, they are unable to recall anything that happened while they were drinking.
What Happens to the Brain When You Blackout?
Retaining memories involves the brain encoding details of sensory events that a person considers interesting or compelling. Details of what you see, hear, smell, etc. are encoded in the brain similar to how information is “remembered” by computers. However, instead of using silicon chips to retain information, the brain utilizes neural networks, neurotransmitters, the hippocampus, and the amygdala to consolidate memories.
Heavy drinking triggers abnormal chemical reactions along neural networks in the brain. Alcohol prevents neurons from signally each other, essentially shutting down the ability of the brain to retain memories. Alcohol also has a negative impact on hippocampus functioning. The hippocampus is where short-term (episodic) memories are stored that cannot be remembered by people who black out from drinking.
Physicians recognize two types of alcohol-induced amnesias: partial memory blackout and complete blackout. Partial memory loss involves fragmentary recollections of what happened during and after a drinking binge. In most cases, people suffering partial memory blackouts suddenly “remember” events when something triggers that memory. For example, Doug wakes up with a terrible hangover. A friend calls and says Doug got into a fight with someone at a bar. Doug can’t remember anything about the fight until later when he is watching a TV show depicting a fight in a bar.
A complete blackout is a total loss of memory. No matter how hard the person tries to remember what happened while they were drinking, those memories cannot be recalled.
Do Blackouts Cause Permanent Brain Damage?
Blackouts will cause brain damage if they occur frequently due to alcohol abuse disorder (AAD). However, anytime a person blacks out indicates they have probably drunk beyond the point of intoxication. If this is a common occurrence in your life, consider seeking professional help for AAD.
Regular alcohol consumption that exceeds one or two drinks per week is a proven, contributory factor in over 200 diseases. The brain is particularly vulnerable to alcohol-related damage because alcohol can destroy brain cells. Chronic alcohol drinking will permanently impair areas of the brain controlling memory encoding, retention, formation, and recall. Blacking out frequently means you are at serious risk of developing early-onset dementia, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (a disease with dementia-like symptoms), and even complete cognitive incapacitation.
Baystate Recovery Center is a leading addiction treatment center in MA that offers day treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, and outpatient treatment for people struggling with alcohol and drug abuse disorders. If you or someone you know is blacking out regularly from heavy drinking, please call Baystreet Recovery Centertoday for immediate help.