Drinking moderately in a social setting may improve short-term memory, says a scientific team from the University of Exeter. The researchers wrote on Scientific Reports that the overarching assumption that any form of alcohol intake is detrimental to health may need to be reconsidered. While excessive drinking is discouraged all throughout, social drinking may actually facilitate learning to a certain degree.
To carry out the research, the team recruited 88 participants who described themselves as “social drinkers.” The group consisted of 31 males and 57 females, with an age range of 18 to 53. Participants were split into two groups at random and asked to either drink as much as they liked or not drink at all. On average, the group that was given free reign to consume alcohol drank an average of four units (that’s equivalent to about 83 grams). Both groups were tasked to a word-learning challenge.
The team asked the groups to perform the same task the next day. It was observed that the group that drank alcohol remembered more of what they had learned compared to the other group.
Professor Celia Morgan, a co-author of the study wrote on Science Daily, “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.”
She and her team are not exactly certain why (or how) this connection exists, but hypothesize that alcohol disrupts function in the hippocampus, the area that deals with memory, so that new information is stored as long-term memory instead.
“The theory is that the hippocampus…switches to ‘consolidating’ memories, transferring from short into longer-term memory,” Professor Morgan stated.
These results, by themselves, are intriguing as previous research has only linked the connection between alcohol and memory in a lab setting. This is the first time participants were studied in a natural setting, with the people drinking in their own homes.
The team also had the participants do another task, which involved looking at images on a screen. The procedures were similar to the previous one. However, the researchers saw no statistical significance between both groups in memory performance pre- and post-drinking.
This does suggest another factor in how alcohol affects mental cognition. (Related: How Alcohol Affects the Body.)
Riding on a wave of controversy
The study is controversial as other medical studies have observed a noted decline in brain function among alcohol consumers, even those who drink moderately. There is a growing pool of research on both sides, with neither giving way to the other. Those who do drink can attest to alcohol’s immediate effect — a sense of happiness, feeling less stressed and being more sociable. PET scans of alcohol consumers have shown that the brain releases more endorphins (the feel-good hormone) after it comes into contact with the liquid. However, excessively drinking is linked to various health conditions such as an increased risk of dementia, among other things. There are also studies which suggest that even social sessions — defined as one drink a day for women and two for men (that is around 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits, five oz. of wine, or 12 oz. of beer) — can shrink areas in the brain involved in cognition and learning.
Remember that alcohol remains the last socially-acceptable drug. As we wait for scientists to make a clear stand on alcohol, just take note that each sip you take changes your brain. Whether this is for better or worse remains to be seen.