Alcohol May Boost Memory Formation After Learning

Drinking may not be so bad for your memory after all.

In fact, a study released this week in Nature Scientific Reports suggests that drinking alcohol right after learning something new might actually help your brain store that information more effectively than if you remained sober.

While previous studies have examined the role of alcohol in memory formation, this study was one of the first to test this outside of a lab setting. The team from the University of Exeter studied 88 adults between the ages of 18-53.  Participants were asked to conduct the study in their own homes, and half were told to drink as much as they wanted. The other half had to remain sober. The sober and drinking groups had similar backgrounds in terms of age, body mass index, typical drinking habits, and incidence of blackouts.

Researchers compared the performance of adults who drank as much as they wanted and those who did not drink during the evening on specific memory tasks for words learned before the evening began.

For participants, the study started—sober—at 6 pm. They first listened to 24 words that seemed similar to real words, but had extra letters (like frenzylk). At 7 pm, they were asked to remember the words based on the first few letters (an example prompt was frenzy_ _).  Around 8 pm, for half of the participants, the drinking began. And drink they did. The average person consumed about six drinks worth of alcohol.

Two hours later, at 10 pm, participants were given a second, image-based task to test memory retention during drinking. They were shown 128 images and asked to categorize them as indoor or outdoor items. They were then presented with 192 images (some of which overlapped with the first 128), and asked whether each image was old (from the first set), similar (showed an old item in a new position), or new (had not appeared before).

The next morning, after a night of drinking, the participants who consumed more alcohol answered correctly more often for the first task than those who drank less. The scientists had hypothesized that the memory boost would occur because drinking alcohol blocked individuals’ ability to form new memories while imbibing, leaving more resources to encode memories developed before. Beth Mole described the results for Ars Technica:

They were partly right. The drinkers did indeed perform better at the made-up word challenge. The sober group showed an ever-so-slight decline in remembering the words between the evening and morning tests. But the drinkers scored statistically significantly better the next morning than they did in the evening—not just the same as the evening. This hints at the idea that alcohol doesn’t simply help reduce forgetfulness; it may instead firm up freshly formed knowledge and enhance memory.

Still, the results of the image-based memory challenge were not so crystal clear. Drinkers didn’t do worse than the sober folks. They all did about the same in both evening and morning tests.

If people who drank had scored worse on the image tests, the researchers would have had evidence to support their hypothesis that memory formation suffers while drinking, giving the brain time to consolidate older memories. That part, though, remains unsolved.

Originally, the team had hoped to conduct the tests in an even more realistic setting for binge drinking like bars or clubs, but the businesses weren’t keen on the idea. “The most available option was to test participants in their homes during a drinking session that preceded a night out,” the researchers wrote.

The team’s next experiments will explore how sleep may work together with alcohol to improve our memories. Alcohol, the researchers wrote, may boost the patterns in slow wave sleep—also known as deep sleep—that help us encode memories. If there is a link, it could explain the boozy memory boost and has been ignored by most other studies.