Alcohol is the most widely used and abused drug in the world, and teens are using it to such extremes they blackout. Society has cultivated and nurtured a wrongfully accepted drinking ritual that makes joking around about blackouts and binge drinking fun and lighthearted. The consequences of binge drinking aren’t as funny, and researchers from the University of California, San Diego explain exactly why in their new study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"Some people think that blackouts, very bad hangovers, and outrageous behavior at parties are very funny," the study’s coauthor Marc A. Schuckit, psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Diego, said in a press release. "This does not represent 'fun.' People don't understand how dangerous blackouts are. In fact, people have oodles of misconceptions about drinking."

Schuckit and his research team selected 1,402 English teens between the ages of 15 to 19 years old because they’re the group that has the heaviest drinking habits. After four years of studying the group they confirmed their theory: Blackouts were most common among that age range. They found 30 percent of 15-year-olds were having alcohol-related blackouts. By the time they reached 19, a total of 74 percent were blacking out from excessive alcohol consumption. The rapid increase of blackouts with age merits cause for concern, especially the socially acceptable aspect of the behavior.

"The UK ranks among the top for drinking in the world, beginning by mid to late teens," Schuckit said. "Drinking rates in the U.S. are not quite as high, but I am guessing that by age 19, more than half would have likely had a blackout. Regardless the nation, what we're trying to understand here is the impact of blackouts, and what may predict a blackout. No matter what country, when kids are drinking, they are not likely to understand what is going on with their systems and how dangerous it can be. And if they're drinking to the point of having blackouts, this is dangerous."

The Science Behind A Blackout

Blackouts occur when a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in their blood reaches a level much higher than what is considered legal intoxication. While a person drinks, the alcohol acts as a stimulant. As BAC increases, drinkers report increases in elation, excitement, and extroversion, while they simultaneously experience fatigue, restlessness, depression, and confusion. Symptoms will fluctuate depending the degree of the drinker’s personality, mood, or genetic susceptibility. But once the drinking tapers off, it begins to act as more of a sedative.

The problems resulting from excessive drinking can seem endless. From regrets to life-changing mistakes, binge drinking lowers a person’s inhibitions so much he may not even be fully aware of his actions or the consequences. A lot of it takes place in the brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the region responsible for decision-making, rational thought, and understanding an action’s cause and effect. Move on toward the back of the brain and you’ll find the temporal cortex, which is where the hippocampus sits. It’s the region of the brain responsible for forming new memories, and drinking will reduce the ability for the hippocampus to function properly — that explains why blackouts birth blank memories.

"Someone who has had a blackout cannot remember part of their drinking episode," Schuckit said. "As you can imagine, blackouts are likely to occur when the drinker is vulnerable to a range of additional dangerous consequences. Women might have unprotected sex, place themselves in a situation where they can be raped, or not be fully capable of protecting themselves. Men can get into fights, use very bad judgment regarding another person, and are often the driver when BACs associated with blackouts can lead to a car accident. Blackouts are very dangerous for both men and women."

Teaching preteens and teens what happens to their young brains may be strong enough to deter them from the curiosity and lure of alcohol. PFCs also develop with age, which means teens don’t even have a fully functional set of tools to stop them from drinking to excess. A woman’s PFC doesn’t fully develop until she’s 21 years old, while a man needs four more years and won’t fully develop until he’s 25 years old. Teenagers and young adults are virtually running around without the fully developed part of their brain that tells them “maybe you shouldn’t do that.” No wonder why teens have the biggest blackout population.

"Kids have to recognize the problem of blackouts themselves and take steps to change behaviors," Schuckit said. "We need to identify something they can recognize in themselves and their peers so they can learn to modify their behaviors, because blackouts are dangerous, prevalent, and persistent."

Source: Schuckit MA, et al. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 2014.