Some people drink to forget. But medical researchers say drinking alcohol may make it easier to remember.
That's not to say doctors think you should increase your alcohol consumption to sharpen your brain. It doesn't work like that.
Hitoshi Morikawa, of the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at The University of Texas, says the common view that drinking is bad for learning and memory isn't wrong. But, he says, it highlights only one side of what ethanol consumption does to the brain.
Conscious and subconscious memory
"Usually, when we talk about learning and memory, we're talking about conscious memory," said 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."
What's the significance of this conclusion? Morikawa says it's just more 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 use drugs, our subconscious is learning to consume more. But it doesn't stop there. According to the study, we become more receptive to forming subsconscious memories and habits with respect to food, music, even people and social situations.
Addicted to memories
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 all the memories and 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," said Morikawa. "It strengthens those synapses that are active when dopamine is released."
Morikawa's long-term hope is that by understanding the brain's connection to addiction better, he can develop anti-addiction drugs. 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."