What Happens During a Blackout?

Find out why drinking too much alcohol can affect your memory.

What Happens During a Blackout?

At the height of rush hour at 5:28pm on November 9, 1965, 30 million people in about a half-dozen states including New York and two Canadian provinces were plunged into darkness. Dubbed the Great Blackout of 1965, its cause was a faulty relay in Ontario, Canada, that sent an overloading power surge over transmission lines.

The same sort of thing happens to someone who’s had too much to drink and blacks out. According to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (part of the NIH), too much alcohol “shuts down the ability of the brain to consolidate memories.” When you’re past your legal limit of blood alcohol concentration (0.08) and up around 0.16, ethanol, the compound in alcohol that causes drunken symptoms, crosses the blood-brain barrier, targeting receptors in the hippocampus (where memories are kept) and memory-making signals are blocked. The result is a gap in time or a blackout. The good news is the damage isn’t permanent—although chronic excess drinking does irreversibly damage the brain. The bad news is you could have done something terrible and not remember it.

The NIH advises that if you want to drink responsibly, know your limit. You can also avoid blackouts by not drinking to the point of slurring words, becoming uncoordinated or vomiting.

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