The allegations of sexual assault against Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh have a common element of binge drinking, and highlight the powerful effects alcohol can have on adolescents and their still-developing brains. Alcohol not only changes behavior — sometimes with disastrous consequences — it can also interfere with memory formation, creating gaps that experts refer to as blackouts.
Alcohol impairs memory formation, but not in a simple or easily anticipated way, researchers say. There’s no clear cutoff point at which memory will be suppressed. David J. Nutt, a psychiatrist and alcohol expert at Imperial College London, said alcohol blocks the neurotransmitter glutamate, which is essential to memory formation. That typically happens when people are “very, very drunk,” he said.
Adolescents are at risk of getting very drunk, in part because they are less sensitive to sedative effects, such as sleepiness or stumbling, that tell adults they’ve had too much, according to Marisa Silveri, director of the Neurodevelopmental Laboratory on Addictions and Mental Health at McLean Hospital.
At the same time, they are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol on memory. Studies suggest that alcohol has a more pronounced negative effect on memory formation in the immature brain. And the kind of drinking teens are likely to engage in at weekend house parties are a particular risk factor for memory impairment.
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