Everyone has heard of alcohol-induced memory blackouts. People who drink far to excess, often called 'binge drinking' in contemporary parlance, can often result in people doing things they can't remember the next day. Waking up in a strange place, hopefully not in a gutter, can happen when people drink large amounts of alcohol. Things like this have led most people to equate alcohol consumption with memory damage, but a new study out of the University of Texas - Austin shows that the drug also stimulates other aspects of the brain's memory mechanism.
The lead researcher, neurobiologist Dr. Hitoshi Morikawa, says that alcohol does diminish our ability to hold onto current events, "but our subconscious is learning and remembering too, and alcohol may actually increase our capacity to learn, or 'conditionability,' at that level." Consuming ethanol, the type of alcohol humans can consume, works in two key ways: it enhances the plasticity of neural synapses in certain areas of the brain while simultaneously stimulating activity in those areas. The result is that the brain becomes conditioned to consume more alcohol, which leads to the learned behavior of addiction. This aspect of the study is not terribly new, though discovering which parts of the brain see increase function has confirmed other research concerning alcoholism as a memory disorder.
What is new, however, is that Dr. Morikawa and his team is that the conditioning aspects extend far beyond the direct consumption of alcohol. Whatever people typically do when they drink, the social setting, food, music, etc. - all of this becomes imprinted deeply in the subconscious memory of the brain. In other words, alcohol addiction fuels more than itself, but whatever behaviors come along with it.
Put more extremely, alcohol tells the brain directly that whatever people do at that moment is worthwile - and thus should be repeated. In Morikawa's words: "It's kind of scary because it has the potential to be a mind controlling substance." Until the deeper workings of the neurochemistry are understood, alcohol use in and of itself is not necessarily dangerous, as the subconscious imprinting of happy occasions during casual alcohol use can certainly be seen as beneficial. Still, the fact being truly addicted to alcohol has a much broader impact on behavior is an alarming find for those struggling with such an addition (and for those treating such addiction).
Past research has shown the beneficial effects of moderate alcohol use in patients suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and elderly people, among other instances. Particularly in the case of TBI, alcohol's role in enhanced synaptic plasticity found by Dr. Morikawa could an important factor.