Drinking to forget makes bad memories worse

Alcohol alters the brain’s chemistry – that makes memories difficult to overwrite.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University, led by neurology professor Dr Norman Haughey, have found evidence that alcohol not only prevents you from forgetting bad memories but can make those memories stronger. Alcohol strengthens the synapses (connections) between neurons connected to the brain’s fear response centres, which means the more you try to drown your sorrows, the more difficult it is to overwrite traumatic memories.

People who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often feel stressed or frightened even when they are safe and in a safe environment. Recovery is rarely a simple matter of forgetting past trauma but more a matter of learning how to manage negative physical and emotional reactions to memories. Hypnotherapy and its associated creative visualisation and relaxation techniques can provide valuable relief.

However, alcohol is a popular comfort to sufferers because it numbs awareness and helps with insomnia. It many ways, alcohol is a chemical cosh – the stupor of drunkenness is a warm, fuzzy place. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, trauma sufferers are more likely than others to have a drink problem. It is estimated that between 60 and 80% of people with PTSD binge drink as a way to self-medicate.

The study used experiments on laboratory mice to observe the effects of alcohol on fearful responses to memories. The mice were ‘fear trained’ by being put in a cage with an electrified floor. As with Pavlov’s experiments with dogs, which perfectly illustrated conditioning, the experimenters played six tones and followed them with a shock. The mice were then split into two groups with one group given water and the other, water with 20% ethanol (a constituent of alcohol) to drink.

The following day, researchers attempted to disassociate the mice’s negative response to the tones by playing them without administering a shock. The mice that had been given alcohol were far more likely to ‘freeze’ than the ones that were given only water, and brain tissue samples showed why – the mice that had been given alcohol had many more receptors along their synapses than did the mice that had been given water. This is important because stronger synapses mean stronger memories, and thus stronger connections with the brain’s fear response centres.

Most of us, especially the elderly, work to keep our synapses and thus our memories strong. But the researchers found that the increased number receptors along the synapses left the traumatised mice in a permanent state of fear. Those mice were then given Perampanel, a drug more commonly used to treat epilepsy that works by blocking the receptors. The freezing response in the alcohol dosed mice dropped significantly to 20%.

Alcohol is a very short-term solution to a long-term problem. PTSD sufferers would be better off seeking counselling and other forms of therapy. There are ways, including hypnotherapy, which can address emotional issues very rapidly. There are now techniques to create emotional distance for the client, although the memory will still be there.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2013. All Rights Reserved.

About Andrew Newton

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Andrew Newton has an international reputation as a leading authority on hypnosis. 

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