THURSDAY, July 14 (HealthDay News) -- Binge drinking may not necessarily kill or even damage brain cells, as commonly thought, a new animal study suggests.
But it can block key receptors in the brain and trigger production of a steroid that interferes with brain functions critical to learning and memory, according to researchers.
Neuroscientists from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis argued their findings not only shed light on exactly what is happening when alcohol-induced "blackouts" occur, but could also lead to strategies to help improve memory.
The scientists examined slices of the brains of rats exposed to alcohol to determine how it affected them. The study, published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that large amounts of alcohol affect the hippocampus and other areas of the brain involved in cognitive functions, such as memory formation.
Plagued by excessive alcohol, key receptors in the brain are blocked and later others are activated, producing steroids that undermine long-term potentiation (LTP), a process that strengthens the connections between neurons and is essential to learning and memory.
"It takes a lot of alcohol to block LTP and memory," study senior investigator Dr. Charles F. Zorumski, the Samuel B. Guze Professor and head of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis's Department of Psychiatry, said in a university news release. "But the mechanism isn't straightforward. The alcohol triggers these receptors to behave in seemingly contradictory ways, and that's what actually blocks the neural signals that create memories."
"It also may explain why individuals who get highly intoxicated don't remember what they did the night before," he added.
The study's authors pointed out only about half of these key brain receptors are blocked by alcohol. Some are activated, which triggers the production of the steroids that interrup
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