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06.2011

Massachusetts Beverage Business

archivedHealth

ALCOHOL IS NO AMNESIAC!

If you’re drinking to forget you might want to forgo that next cocktail. It turns out that consuming alcohol just may help you remember more than you want. A new study from the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at The University of Texas at Austin says that intoxication primes certain areas of the brain to learn and remember things more clearly. The common view that drinking makes people forget about things and impairs learning is not wrong, but it highlights only one side of what alcohol does to the brain. Neurobiologist Hitoshi Morikawa told SCIENCE DAILY: “Usually, when we talk about learning and memory, we’re talking about conscious memory. Alcohol diminishes our ability to hold on to pieces of information like where you parked your car. But our subconscious is learning and remembering too, and alcohol may actually increase our capacity to learn, or ‘conditionability’, at that level.” Morikawa’s study, results of which were published in the March issue of the journal of neuroscience, found that repeated exposure to ethanol enhances synaptic plasticity in a key area in the brain.

When people drink alcohol or take drugs, the subconscious is not only learning to consume more but becoming more receptive to forming subconscious memories and habits with respect to food, music, even people and social situations. Morikawa says that alcoholics aren’t addicted to the experience of pleasure or relief they get from drinking alcohol but to the environmental, behavioral and physiological cues that are reinforced when alcohol triggers the release of dopamine in the brain. He said, “People commonly think of dopamine as a happy transmitter, or a pleasure transmitter, but more accurately it’s a learning transmitter. It strengthens those synapses that are active when dopamine is released.” Among the things learned when drinking alcohol is that it is rewarding. Going to a bar, socializing with friends, eating certain foods, listening to music, and other pleasant things people do while drinking alcohol are rewarding. The more often someone does these things while drinking, and the more dopamine that gets released, the more ‘potentiated’ the various synapses become and the more people crave the set of experiences and associations that orbit around the alcohol use. Morikawa’s long-term hope is that by understanding the neurobiological underpinnings of addiction better, he can develop anti-addiction drugs that would weaken, rather than strengthen, the key synapses.

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