Alcohol Helps the Brain Remember, Says New Study

Posted on in Neuroscience

Drinking alcohol primes certain areas of our brain to learn and remember better, says a new study from the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at The University of Texas at Austin.

addiction1.jpgAUSTIN, Texas-Drinking alcohol primes certain areas of our brain to learn and remember better, says a new study from the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at The University of Texas at Austin.

The common view that drinking is bad for learning and memory isn't wrong, says neurobiologist Hitoshi Morikawa, but it highlights only one side of what ethanol consumption does to the brain.

"Usually, when we talk about learning and memory, we're talking about conscious memory," says Morikawa, whose results were published last month in The Journal of Neuroscience. "Alcohol diminishes our ability to hold on to pieces of information like your colleague's name, or the definition of a word, or where you parked your car this morning. But our subconscious is learning and remembering too, and alcohol may actually increase our capacity to learn, or 'conditionability,' at that level."

Morikawa's study, which found that repeated ethanol exposure enhances synaptic plasticity in a key area in the brain, is further evidence toward an emerging consensus in the neuroscience community that drug and alcohol addiction is fundamentally a learning and memory disorder.

When we drink alcohol (or shoot up heroin, or snort cocaine, or take methamphetamines), our subconscious is learning to consume more. But it doesn't stop there. We become more receptive to forming subsconscious memories and habits with respect to food, music, even people and social situations.

In an important sense, says Morikawa, alcoholics aren't addicted to the experience of pleasure or relief they get from drinking alcohol. They're addicted to the constellation of environmental, behavioral and physiological cues that are reinforced when alcohol triggers the release of dopamine in the brain.

"People commonly think of dopamine as a happy transmitter, or a pleasure transmitter, but more accurately it's a learning transmitter," says Morikawa. "It strengthens those synapses that are active when dopamine is released."

Alcohol, in this model, is the enabler. It hijacks the dopaminergic system, and it tells our brain that what we're doing at that moment is rewarding (and thus worth repeating).

Among the things we learn is that drinking alcohol is rewarding. We also learn that going to the bar, chatting with friends, eating certain foods and listening to certain kinds of music are rewarding. The more often we do these things while drinking, and the more dopamine that gets released, the more "potentiated" the various synapses become and the more we crave the set of experiences and associations that orbit around the alcohol use.

Morikawa's long-term hope is that by understanding the neurobiological underpinnings of addiction better, he can develop anti-addiction drugs that would weaken, rather than strengthen, the key synapses. And if he can do that, he would be able to erase the subconscious memory of addiction.

"We're talking about de-wiring things," says Morikawa. "It's kind of scary because it has the potential to be a mind controlling substance. Our goal, though, is to reverse the mind controlling aspects of addictive drugs."

Daniel J Oppenheimer

Dan was publications editor for the College of Natural Sciences from 2006-2013. He is now communications manager for the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.


  • Guest
    Delyn Monday, April 18, 2011

    That's a nice theory, but I seriously doubt it's going to completely have the kind of effect you're hoping for.

    If it's one thing I've learned about this world, it's that no matter how far we progress, no matter what course we take, the simple rules of life always apply. And nothing we've ever done has really been able to challenge those simple things. Those simple facts are that there are always consequences, we always have to work for what we want and want to pass down, unless we happen to be among a lucky/unlucky few, we will always suffer and enjoy those consequences respectively. That's just life, and it always has been. And I definitely expect that it always will be.

    Bupropion may have a side effect of removing one's physical craving for a cigarette, but it is in no way a cure, only something that is possibly able to help. Even with it's benefit, one must still wage their war with willpower and find a way to both mentally and emotionally overcome their addiction.

    This work you're doing may prove to be very beneficial, but don't be discouraged if it turns out that it actually does not keep people from craving the implied satisfaction of their addiction because it still may be very helpful for many, perhaps even more than Bupropion is. It may very well serve to upset the balance their body feels from giving in to their addiction, and thus cause them to no longer gain the same mental and emotional satisfaction, which may very well serve to lessen their emotional and mental need for the substance. But I still think that they will have to struggle through the consequences of their choices because that's how life is and I seriously doubt any level of technological breakthrough will ever remove that.

    Don't quite trying though, many breakthroughs are often the result of looking for something totally different than what one starts to find.

  • Guest
    devyn Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    but doesnt it still mess with your heart/liver and make operating machinery hard ? is that a risk people should take just to memorize?

  • Guest
    HOLO Thursday, June 30, 2011

    Hmm.. time to down a couple beers when studying!

Leave your comment

Guest Wednesday, July 01, 2015