Loss of memory can be disturbing in any situation. In many cases, unexpected memory loss has to do with factors that are beyond an individual’s control, such as head trauma or a disease like Alzheimer’s. However, amnestic disorders – that is, those that result in memory loss or damage to memory functions – can also be caused by deliberate human behaviors, such as drinking alcohol.
It’s fairly well known that alcohol can have an effect on memory. Anyone who has had more than a few drinks in one sitting may have experienced the condition of blacking out, where it can be difficult to remember what happened while under the influence of alcohol. Memories from nights of binge drinking or even just getting a little tipsy can be blurred and vague, or even be missing entirely, as described by an article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. This is often a result of the alcohol itself, which can interfere with the parts of the brain involved in memory.
Memory Loss Disorders
Generally, amnestic disorders represent any type of condition in which memory is impaired or lost; in other words, they refer to various types of amnesia. As described by the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, these involve a variety of different types of memory challenges, including:
- Loss of memories that were already made
- Loss of ability to make new memories
- Loss of ability to learn new information
- Other diminishment of typical memory capabilities
These disorders can be caused by stroke, head trauma, tumors, or other conditions that cause damage to parts of the brain involved in memory. Amnesia can also be caused by accidentally or purposefully ingesting or otherwise using substances that interfere with or damage brain cells and function, including alcohol.
Alcohol and Memory Loss
Long-term, heavy alcohol abuse can cause profound damage to memory systems in the brain, even leading to long-term cognitive damage. In these cases, some memories may be lost while the brain may also lose its ability to create new memories. In this case, the physical effect of alcohol on the body and brain is directly to blame for this type of damage to the circuitry in the brain related to memory.
As indicated by a report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the degree to which alcohol affects an individual’s memory – and the potential for the person to experience either blackouts or a long-term amnestic disorder – depends to a large degree on how much alcohol the individual consumes. However, it can also be connected to the individual’s specific circumstances, such as:
- How early in life the person started drinking
- Family history of alcoholism
- Overall health and constitution
- Social and learning factors, such as education
Signs and Symptoms of Amnestic Disorder
Another name for amnesia caused by long-term alcohol use is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (colloquial: wet brain). As described by the Alzheimer’s Association, symptoms of this condition include:
- Gaps in long-term memory
- Inability to remember recent events
- Lack of awareness that there are problems with memory
- Confabulation, or making up information that has been forgotten
The individual who is confabulating to fill in missing information may not be lying in the literal sense of the word. Instead, the person may truly believe that the confabulated memories are real. There is little understanding of why confabulation occurs in Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
A study from the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry indicates there are other, problematic behavioral symptoms that can occur with alcoholic amnestic disorder, including aggression, agitation, and depression. However, not much is known about how these symptoms are connected and whether or not there are ways to support individuals with these symptoms.
Inadequate Ability to Absorb Nutrients
The current research and understanding of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and memory damage due to alcohol has to do with how alcohol affects the individual’s ability to absorb nutrients. Specifically, the development of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome in general is the result of inadequate levels of thiamine, or B1, as explained by the National Library of Medicine. This deficiency can be caused by alcohol interrupting the body’s ability to absorb thiamine from the diet, leading to inadequate levels of the vitamin in the body.
While the relationship between thiamine and memory isn’t fully understood, what is apparent is that a deficiency in this essential vitamin interrupts the brain’s ability to recall old memories or create new ones.
Prevalence of the Disorder
Not everyone who drinks alcohol heavily will develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Some individuals are more likely to deal with other health issues related to alcoholism, such as liver or heart conditions or cancer. For this reason, as described by Medscape, there is suspicion of a genetic element that could be involved in development of the condition.
Research indicates that this amnestic disorder occurs in 1-3 percent of the population, and most often develops in people between 30 and 70 years old. Because it is so deeply related to alcohol abuse, it is only rarely found in children. There are other causes of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome that are not related to alcohol; in these cases, the disorder can be found in a wide range of individuals outside of those who drink alcohol. Nevertheless, people with alcoholism or who engage in alcohol abuse make up the majority of individuals with this condition.
Can Alcoholic Amnesia Be Reversed?
Individuals who experience blackouts based on binge drinking are generally unable to recover those memories, but they do not usually have other memory issues afterward. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the long-term damage of alcoholic amnestic disorders. The National Library of Medicine explains that the brain damage caused by thiamine deficiency resulting from alcohol abuse is generally permanent damage to those areas of the brain. In other words, the memories lost will not return, and the inability to learn or form new memories will not diminish. According to a study from Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 80 percent of people who are diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome end up with a permanent memory disorder.
Permanent memory loss and damage to memory and learning centers is a life-changing situation. People who struggle with this condition are likely to need ongoing care to function. Many people who develop this condition are not diagnosed until it has reached a dangerous point. Death can result from this disorder over time. Because of the severity of this condition’s effect on quality of life and long-term health, it is important to recognize the risks of this disorder and stop drinking alcohol if the risk of developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is high.
Treatment for Alcoholic Amnestic Disorder
There is no satisfactory treatment for alcoholic amnestic disorder. While thiamine supplementation is standard treatment, it cannot repair damage that has already been done to the brain through thiamine deficiency that has led to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. As mentioned above, once the condition is present, the person can generally expect to have this memory disorder throughout the rest of their life.
There is, however, treatment for alcoholism. To avoid the risk of developing and struggling with this devastating and life-altering condition, a person who is struggling with alcohol abuse or alcoholism can work with a certified, research-based rehab program to stop drinking and to replenish the nutrient deficiencies that can lead to this and other conditions. Treatment programs that focus on research-based treatment models often include nutritional programs, making sure the person makes up any deficiencies, decreasing the chances that they will experience a dangerous condition such as alcoholic amnestic disorder.