Although alcohol may give you a feeling of elation and aroused senses due to a lessening of inhibitions during the early stages of alcohol intoxication, alcohol is a depressant. It depresses the central nervous system—leading to slowed reactions, slurred speech, and ultimately, to unconsciousness. Alcohol progressively affects different brain areas. Alcohol first affects the part of the brain that controls inhibitions. When people lose their inhibitions, they may talk more, get rowdy, and do foolish things. After several drinks, they may feel “high,” but really, their nervous system is slowing down. Alcohol acts fast because it is not digested like food. Instead, it moves directly into the bloodstream from the stomach and small intestine. It takes a long time for alcohol’s effects to wear off—as it takes approximately one hour for the liver to process the alcohol in one drink. ALCOHOL’S DAMAGING EFFECTS ON THE BRAIN
Difficulty walking, blurred vision, slurred speech, slowed reaction times, impaired memory: Clearly, alcohol affects the brain. Some of these impairments are detectable after only one or two drinks and quickly resolve when drinking stops. On the other hand, a person who drinks heavily over a long period of time may have brain deficits that persist well after he or she achieves sobriety. Exactly how alcohol affects the brain and the likelihood of reversing the impact of heavy drinking on the brain remain hot topics in alcohol research today. We do know that heavy drinking may have extensive and far–reaching effects on the brain, ranging from simple “slips” in memory to permanent and debilitating conditions that require lifetime custodial care. And even moderate drinking leads to short–term impairment, as shown by extensive research on the impact of drinking on driving. A number of factors influence how and to what extent alcohol affects the brain (1), including * how much and how often a person drinks;
* the age at which he or she first began drinking, and how long he or she has been drinking; * the person’s age, level of education, gender, genetic background, and family history of alcoholism; * whether he or she is at risk as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure; and * his or her general health status.
BLACKOUTS AND MEMORY LAPSES
Alcohol can produce detectable impairments in memory after only a few drinks and, as the amount of alcohol increases, so does the degree of impairment. Large quantities of alcohol, especially when consumed quickly and on an empty stomach, can produce a blackout, or an interval of time for which the intoxicated person cannot recall key details of events, or even entire events. Blackouts are much more common among social drinkers than previously assumed and should be viewed as a potential consequence of acute intoxication regardless of age or whether the drinker is clinically dependent on alcohol (2). White and colleagues (3) surveyed 772 college undergraduates about their experiences with blackouts and asked, “Have you ever awoken after a night of drinking not able to remember things that you did or places that you went?” Of the students who had ever consumed alcohol, 51 percent reported blacking out at some point in their lives, and 40 percent reported experiencing a blackout in the year before the survey. Of those who reported drinking in the 2 weeks before the survey, 9.4 percent said they blacked out during that time. The students reported learning later that they had participated in a wide range of potentially dangerous events they could not remember, including vandalism, unprotected sex, and driving. Binge Drinking and Blackouts
• Drinkers who experience blackouts typically drink too much and too quickly, which causes their blood alcohol levels to rise very rapidly. College students may be at particular risk for experiencing a blackout, as an alarming number of college students engage in binge drinking. Binge drinking, for a typical adult, is...
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