Healthy Living

A Hangover's Mental Impact: Impaired Working Memory, Slower Reaction Times, And More

Mental Impact Of A Hangover: Damaging The Brain With Booze
Researchers find that a hangover's mental impact includes slowed task performance and increased vulnerability to errors. R.Nial.Bradshaw, CC By-ND 2.0

Besides the stomachache, headache, and general overall feeling of physical agony, hangovers are damaging your brain, and there's finally research to prove it. New preliminary research reveals that a hangover not only makes you feel groggy, but could also be impairing the way your brain retains and processes information.

Scientists have found that by the time an individual sobers up and the body aches go away, the consequences from a night of binge drinking are outlasting. Along with the dizziness, nausea, and anxiety, a hangover can cause the brain to function at a much lower rate of efficiency. Alcohol can actually slow the pace of communication between the neurotransmitters in the brain that are necessary for brain information translation to the rest of the body.

For some people, a single alcoholic drink can trigger hangover symptoms, while others need to drink in extreme excess to develop any symptoms at all. Alcohol is doing several different things at once to your body. For example, your body produces more urine when you drink alcohol, potentially leading to dehydration, which begins the vicious cycle of thirst, dizziness, and lightheadedness. You become thirsty and think that in order to quench yourself, the cold beer in your hand will do the trick — when, in fact, it's actually making it worse.

The alcohol then stimulates an inflammatory response from your immune system, which causes a lot of the characteristic signs of a hangover: the inability to concentrate, decreased appetite, and loss of interest in usual activities. Then comes the stomachaches; alcohol increases production of stomach acid, which causes abdominal pain, nausea, and in some cases, vomiting. If that isn't enough, alcohol causes blood vessels to expand and blood to thin, which usually leads to the customary morning-after headache.

"Most people are familiar with the undesirable hangover effects that may arise the day after excessive drinking. What's more, the symptoms of alcohol hangover are not just physiological-they affect cognitive functioning and mood as well, which may lead to numerous undesirable life consequences," said Dr. Lauren Owen, postdoctoral research fellow at Keele University School of Psychology and lead researcher of the study.

Owen's preliminary findings are to be presented Thursday to show the suffering that a person's memory undergoes due to a hangover. She will reveal the large range of cognitive functions that the researchers measured using a series of comprehensive neuropsychological tests that indicated brain function impairment. They found an increase of 30 percent in performance errors among hungover participants, and an overall five- to 10-percent drop in working memory.

Researchers also evaluated whether or not the symptoms of a hangover varied with age. It turns out, the reaction times were marginally slower for a hungover 20-year-old than someone in their 40s.

"People tend to think that hangovers get worse with age, but we are finding that people generally suffer fewer hangovers," said Dr. Richard Stephens, a senior psychology lecturer at Keele University who organized the conference. "This is probably because older people learn what they can drink and what they cannot."

Researchers look to next test that theory by comparing different age groups that drink the same type of alcohol and amount. This will prove or debunk the theory of wise self-control and experience.

For men, drinking no more than four drinks in a single day and no more than 14 drinks per week will keep them in the "low-risk" drinking level. For women, their tolerances are typically lower, and thus have different drink standards. In order to be considered "low-risk," they must drink no more than three drinks per day and no more than seven drinks per week.

"Although numerous scientific papers cover the acute effects of alcohol consumption, researchers have largely neglected the issue of alcohol hangover," said Owen. "The findings are preliminary, but so far we are observing that tasks that rely on what psychologists call 'working memory' seem to be most reliably affected."

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