Drinking to forget? Bad news... alcohol can actually help you remember

Drinking to forget your problems?

Scientists have found that drinking will actually help you to remember them.

A new study from the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at The University of Texas at Austin says that getting drunk primes certain areas of our brain to learn and remember things more clearly.

The common view that drinking makes you forget about things and impairs your learning is not wrong, but it highlights only one side of what alcohol does to the brain. 

Neurobiologist Hitoshi Morikawa told Science Daily: 'Usually, when we talk about learning and memory, we're talking about conscious memory. 

'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.'

Mr Morikawa's study, results of which were published last month in The Journal of Neuroscience, found that repeated exposure to ethanol enhances synaptic plasticity in a key area in the brain.

When people drink alcohol or take drugs, the subconscious is not only learning to consume more but becoming more receptive to forming subconscious memories and habits with respect to food, music, even people and social situations.

Mr Morikawa says that alcoholics aren't addicted to the experience of pleasure or relief they get from drinking alcohol but to the environmental, behavioural and physiological cues that are reinforced when alcohol triggers the release of dopamine in the brain.

He said: 'People commonly think of dopamine as a happy transmitter, or a pleasure transmitter, but more accurately it's a learning transmitter.

'It strengthens those synapses that are active when dopamine is released.'

Among the things learned when drinking alcohol is that it is rewarding. 

Going to the bar, chatting with friends, eating certain foods, listening to certain kinds of music and other pleasant things people do while drinking alcohol 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 people 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. 

He said: 'We're talking about de-wiring things. 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.'