For a long time, alcohol was thought to exert a general depressant effect on the central nervous system (CNS). However, currently the consensus is that specific regions of the brain are selectively vulnerable to the acute effects of alcohol. An alcohol-induced blackout is the classic example; the subject is temporarily unable to form new long-term memories while relatively maintaining other skills such as talking or even driving. A recent study showed that alcohol can cause retrograde memory impairment, that is, blackouts due to retrieval impairments as well as those due to deficits in encoding. Alcoholic blackouts may be complete (en bloc) or partial (fragmentary) depending on severity of memory impairment. In fragmentary blackouts, cueing often aids recall. Memory impairment during acute intoxication involves dysfunction of episodic memory, a type of memory encoded with spatial and social context. Recent studies have shown that there are multiple memory systems supported by discrete brain regions, and the acute effects of alcohol on learning and memory may result from alteration of the hippocampus and related structures on a cellular level. A rapid increase in blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is most consistently associated with the likelihood of a blackout. However, not all subjects experience blackouts, implying that genetic factors play a role in determining CNS vulnerability to the effects of alcohol. This factor may predispose an individual to alcoholism, as altered memory function during intoxication may affect an individual's alcohol expectancy; one may perceive positive aspects of intoxication while unintentionally ignoring the negative aspects. Extensive research on memory and learning as well as findings related to the acute effects of alcohol on the brain may elucidate the mechanisms and impact associated with the alcohol-induced blackout.
Keywords: alcohol; blackout; memory.