Can Social Drinking Improve Memory?

By Britni de la Cretaz 07/26/17

A new alcohol study discovered some surprising revelations about social drinkers.

a group of people drinking in a club setting

Alcohol is usually associated with memory loss—waking up the next morning with a fuzzy recollection of what happened the night before, stories about blackouts, quips about “drinking to forget.” But a new study from the University of Exeter has some surprising results that suggest that drinking might actually improve memory.

The study is admittedly small, with 88 participants who were identified as social drinkers. It aimed to test whether alcohol facilitated memory in a natural setting—like it has been shown to do in lab settings—by asking randomly-assigned participants to drink or not drink after being tasked with learning new words. The next day, they were tested on those words again, and the people who had imbibed did better on the test than those who had not.

Even more surprising: “Our research not only showed that those who drank alcohol did better when repeating the word-learning task, but that this effect was stronger among those who drank more,” Professor Celia Morgan of the University of Exeter said in a statement.

Morgan went on to explain why researchers think this is the case. “The causes of this effect are not fully understood, but the leading explanation is that alcohol blocks the learning of new information and therefore the brain has more resources available to lay down other recently learned information into long-term memory,” she said. “The theory is that the hippocampus—the brain area really important in memory—switches to ‘consolidating’ memories, transferring from short into longer-term memory.”

The study also measured outcomes when participants were given a task after consuming alcohol—but there was no difference among the drinkers and non-drinkers.

However, long-term use of alcohol in large quantities can lead to dementia and memory problems, damaging the links between neurons and affecting how you process information. Not only that, binge drinking can lead to blackouts, periods of time where someone cannot form new memories. The process for how exactly that happens is complicated, but it involves the blocking of neural signals for memory formation. Anyone who binge drinks—drinking an excessive amount of alcohol in a short period of time—is at risk for blackouts.

Researchers from the University of Exeter study were quick to point out that research of that nature should not be discounted, and that their research was specific to social drinkers.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.