(Medical Xpress) -- A person who drinks too much alcohol may be able to perform complicated tasks, such as dancing, carrying on a conversation or even driving a car, but later have no memory of those escapades. These periods of amnesia, commonly known as “blackouts,” can last from a few minutes to several hours.
Now, at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, neuroscientists have identified the brain cells involved in blackouts and the molecular mechanism that appears to underlie them. They report July 6, 2011, in The Journal of Neuroscience, that exposure to large amounts of alcohol does not necessarily kill brain cells as once was thought. Rather, alcohol interferes with key receptors in the brain, which in turn manufacture steroids that inhibit long-term potentiation (LTP), a process that strengthens the connections between neurons and is crucial to learning and memory.
Better understanding of what occurs when memory formation is inhibited by alcohol exposure could lead to strategies to improve memory.
“It takes a lot of alcohol to block LTP and memory,” says senior investigator Charles F. Zorumski, MD, the Samuel B. Guze Professor and head of the Department of Psychiatry. “But the mechanism isn’t straightforward. The alcohol triggers these receptors to behave in seemingly contradictory ways, and that’s what actually blocks the neural signals that create memories. It also may explain why individuals who get highly intoxicated don’t remember what they did the night before.”
The scientists point out that alcohol isn’t causing blackouts by killing neurons. Instead, the steroids interfere with synaptic plasticity to impair LTP and memory formation.
“Alcohol isn’t damaging the cells in any way that we can detect,” Zorumski says. “As a matter of fact, even at the high levels we used here, we don’t see any changes in how the brain cells communicate. You still process information. You’re not anesthetized. You haven’t passed out. But you’re not forming new memories.”
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