In recent years, an astounding number of sexual assaults have been reported following alcohol-induced blackouts.
What exactly is meant by the term alcohol-induced blackout? Such blackouts are caused by excessive amounts of alcohol which can result in impaired memory, increased risk of injury and other harm.
Alcohol-induced blackouts vary from person to person but some studies reveal that women may be at higher risk of blackouts due to biological differences that influence alcohol distribution and metabolism in the body including body fat percentage and body weight. In addition to physiology, the amount of alcohol consumed and the rate at which it was consumed also influence blackout rates.
Blackouts can happen to anyone who drinks to excess, regardless of age, gender or experience with drinking. The gaps in memory that occur are a result of alcohol temporarily interrupting the process of short-term memories being converted to long-term storage. This process is called memory consolidation and occurs in the hippocampus which is located deep within the brain and is key to memory formation.
High alcohol levels impact the brain’s ability to form new memories while intoxicated but do not wipe away memories that were formed before intoxication.
In other words, a blackout is a temporary condition that is marked by a sense of lost time.
Blackouts end once the body has had time to absorb the alcohol consumed, allowing the brain to once again form memories.
Science has shown that memory loss due to an alcohol-induced blackout commonly occurs when one’s blood alcohol content reaches approximately 0.15% and above. Studies show that blackouts are more likely to occur when alcohol enters the bloodstream quickly, a situation that occurs if an individual drinks on an empty stomach or consumes large amounts of alcohol in a short time span.
Several factors influence an individual’s blood alcohol level, including the type of alcohol consumed as well as weight and gender.
In other words, there isn’t a set number or “safe amount” of drinks associated with the risk of an alcohol-induced blackout. Blackouts are associated with decreased inhibition, altered impulse control, and poor decision-making.
These are the typical signs and symptoms of a blackout:
- Impaired judgment
- Difficulty walking
- Difficulty standing
- Difficulty speaking
- Impaired vision
It’s important to remember that blackouts can also occur due to factors other than alcohol consumption. For some, epileptic seizures, low blood pressure or blood sugar, medication and\or lack of oxygen can result in blackouts.
Experiencing just one alcohol-induced blackout can be dangerous, even life-threatening. That’s because alcohol delays brain signals that control autonomic responses such as the gag reflex.
As a result, it’s possible for someone who throws up during an alcohol-induced blackout to choke and suffocate on their vomit due to the loss of reflex control.
Many factors figure into the onset of a blackout including the use of sedatives, which can increase the risk of an alcohol-induced blackout. Sedatives relax and slow down the body, as does alcohol, and can also impact the brain’s memory-making ability. In cases where sleep and anti-anxiety medications are taken while drinking, blackouts frequently occur at much lower blood alcohol content levels than normal.
Heavy drinking not only ups the risk for memory loss due to alcohol-induced blackouts, but it can also have lasting, adverse effects on the brain. These side effects occur on a continuum, e.g. momentary lapses in memory all the way up to severe and lasting conditions.
For example, long-term alcohol consumption can impair the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for cognitive function, and crucial to short-term and long-term memory.
Frontal lobe damage has the potential to impair behavior and personality, physical function and information storage.
Research indicates that there are two types of blackouts, each defined by the severity of memory impairment.
One type is known as a fragmentary blackout and is marked by discontinuous memory loss. For example, one’s memories may be fragmented, with a discrete period of time remembered incompletely, e.g. intermittent spots of time missing or unremembered. Some professionals refer to this type of memory loss as a gray out or brownout versus a blackout.
In contrast, a blackout can span several hours, with the entire time period irretrievable memory-wise. In this case, memories do not form and for the affected individual, it is as if the events that took place during the blackout never occurred.
As such a blackout is different from “passing out” which refers to an individual losing consciousness or falling asleep due to excessive alcohol consumption.
This is because during a blackout a person may still be awake but the brain nonetheless is not creating new memories.
Are blackouts a sign of alcohol use disorder, commonly referred to as alcoholism? A professional must consider a multitude of criteria to make such a diagnosis, blackouts are not enough to make a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder. However, blackouts are a cause for concern. Even one episode of blacking out is enough for an individual to consider and reappraise their drinking habits.
For example, studies demonstrate that the frequency of blackouts predicts other adverse alcohol-related concerns. These consequences include absenteeism from school or work, lower grade point averages, the risk of injury, increased emergency room visits and increased incidence of arrests.
If you or a loved one have concerns about alcohol-induced blackouts, do not hesitate to talk to a health care professional who can answer your questions and provide the proper help and guidance.
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