How Getting Blackout Drunk Blocks New Memories From Forming

Drunk man slumped on table
Yoann JEZEQUEL Photography / Getty Images

Have you ever drank so much alcohol that you could not remember parts from the night before? Maybe you cannot remember how you got home.

Perhaps your friends tell you that you were the life of the party, dancing the night away, or you woke up somewhere you wished you had not.

If this sounds familiar, then chances are you experienced an alcohol-induced blackout. Blackouts can last a few minutes or for several hours. They can occur in females and males, young and old.

Blackouts Affect Your Brain's Ability to Learn

Some people who have never had an alcohol-related blackout do not believe that they actually happen. They do not see how someone could carry on a detailed argument or behave outrageously and not remember a thing about it. They think blackouts are convenient excuses. But medicine and science tell us that blackouts are real.

For many years, it was believed that drinking too much alcohol was killing brain cells or the neurons in the brain that receive signals, and that was the cause of memory loss.

Now we know that too much alcohol in the body can trigger a chemical reaction in the brain that blocks the brain's ability to learn. The brain cells continue to process information and communicate with each other but are not capable of forming new memories.

Alcohol and Formation of Memories

A person cannot remember something that the brain did not record. Alcohol interferes with receptors in the brain that carry signals between neurons or brain cells. Alcohol affects some brain cells differently than others—it can inhibit some and later activate others—causing them to manufacture steroids that prevent memory formation.

The steroids produced by the alcohol-affected brain cells can reduce the strength of the brain's connections between brain cells which is critical for learning and memory. The steroids interfere with synaptic plasticity or the brain's communication system of passing signals between cells. This communication system is a necessary component of memory formation. Keep in mind that drugs can cause blackouts, too.

A Word From Verywell

Blackout drinking is also considered a symptom of an alcohol problem. If you frequently drink to the point that you do not remember events from the night before, you may want to take an online quiz to see if your drinking has reached the level of alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence.

If you find that you have developed a drinking problem, you may want to get help in cutting down or quitting altogether.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lovinger DM. Communication networks in the brain. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

  2. University of Michigan Medicine. Blackouts caused by alcohol or drugs. Updated February 5, 2019.