Dear YFS: What is alcohol-induced amnesia?

Many dangers from blacking out or passing out from too much alcohol.

Dear YFS,

My daughter’s friend passed out from alcohol at a party. Her parents rushed her to the hospital and thankfully she recovered. This young girl could not remember anything from that night including her friend’s repeated attempts to get her to stop drinking. The doctor told her parents that she had alcohol-induced amnesia, and that it can start with a few sips of alcohol. When I spoke with other parents about teaching our children about alcohol-induced amnesia, they didn’t believe this existed. They thought the young girl was making this up so she wouldn’t get in trouble.

Is alcohol-induced amnesia real, and how can we teach our children to help a peer in this situation? Is there a difference between alcohol-induced amnesia and passing out?

—NJ

Dear NJ ,

The topic of alcohol-induced amnesia (AIA), commonly referred to as “blacking out,” has come up recently in both local and national discourse. So, thank you for emailing your question. It’s important for teens and parents to have accurate information. Blacking out and passing out are not the same thing, and there are different physical implications for each.

Both are caused by excessive alcohol use and they can, but are not always, be related. Blacking out (AIA) happens when an individual ingests enough alcohol so that the brain’s ability to make long term memories is compromised. An individual experiencing a black out can engage in a wide range of behaviors usually presumed impossible given their state of physical intoxication. These range from driving and routine interactions to violent, unethical and illegal behaviors that the individual would not typically commit in a sober state. It is like being on autopilot but without memories of the journey.

The brain cannot make long term memories under the influence of alcohol because the functioning of the amygdala is compromised. That is the part of the brain that stores short term memories for later recall. During a black out an individual might be able to recall memories within a short time frame but they will not be available later, once the individual is sober.

Passing out is becoming unconscious after ingesting too much alcohol. Passing out can come after a period of blacking out but this is not always the case. Because an individual who has passed out cannot be awakened, there is an increased risk of alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning affects the individual’s breathing, heart rate, body temperature and gag reflex putting them at greater risk for coma or death.

Blacking out and passing out are risks for people of any age. These risks are amplified for teen brains that are not yet fully developed. In addition, it is clear from multiple sources that teen alcohol use comes with an increased risk for violence, unprotected and unwanted sex and dealing with a host of unexpected changes in safety and behavior.

Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to reduce the chances that your child will engage in high-risk alcohol behaviors. Parents play the most important role in a child’s decision to use alcohol and other substances. This is your advantage. Start talking to your children about substance use at an early age and stay connected to them, even as they pull away from you in middle and high school. Model your own alcohol use on that hope to see in their adult behavior and let them hear you call out use that is inappropriate. Ensure that your child takes a health class to learn about the signs of alcohol poisoning and providing aid to someone who has consumed dangerous amounts of alcohol. Teach them about the Good Samaritan Law that encourages calling 911 by minimizing consequences if the caller is underage and intoxicated themself.

Teen drinking can be scary terrain for us as parents, remember that the data is clear and consistent: Most Mercer Island youth do not drink alcohol, and even fewer binge drink.

Cindy Goodwin is the director of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. The advice offered by YFS is intended for informational purposes only and to guide you in seeking further resources if needed. The answers to questions are not intended to replace or substitute for any professional, psychological, financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. If you have a question you would like to ask Cindy to answer in this column, or if you need additional professional resources, email miyfs@mercergov.org.


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