You don’t need to drink very much, or even often, to see that alcohol gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Whatever booze offers in easy laughs, false bravado and unforgettable stunts will soon enough be offset by beer poops, hangovers and inexplicable drunk purchases. But we press on and keep imbibing because, for some reason, we downplay the bad parts and only remember the good ones. Well, hold on to your beers, because science might have figured out why: The booze may be programming our memories to do exactly that.
A study from Brown University wanted to figure out why drugs give us such great memories when they’re actually poison and also make us feel bad.
“All drugs of abuse — alcohol, opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine — have adverse side effects,” Karla Kaun, senior study author and assistant neuroscience professor, said in a statement. “They make people nauseous or they give people hangovers, so why do we find them so rewarding? Why do we remember the good things about them and not the bad? My team is trying to understand on a molecular level what drugs of abuse are doing to memories and why they’re causing cravings.”
I mean, the drunk answer is Duh, because they feel good. The bad part doesn’t come until later, so you can pretend the pain and the joy aren’t connected. But the science answer is that booze actually messes with how we form memories at the molecular level and manipulates them into reward memories, so that we will crave the booze again and again.
That is both terrifying and also exceptionally clever.
To figure this out, the researchers studied fruit flies, which, like humans, love booze and have similar molecular signals involved in how they form memories for rewards and avoidance. The fruit flies were given a booze scavenger hunt while the researchers looked at their genes related to memory formation. They expected to find that when the flies got their little wings on some alcohol, it would turn off dopamine-2, which affects the flies’ ability to figure out if a memory was good or not. But it didn’t. It just altered it so that it intensified the craving associated with the alcohol. Basically, the researchers found, alcohol hijacked it by manipulating a type of protein in a subtle way.
“We don’t know what the biological consequences of that small change are, but one of the important findings from this study is that scientists need to look not only at which genes are being turned on and off, but which forms of each gene are getting turned on and off,” Kaun wrote. “We think these results are highly likely to translate to other forms of addiction, but nobody has investigated that.”
While the greatest potential in the research here is to better understand addiction and how to treat it, the researchers note that all it took to activate this pathway for intensified cravings is one glass of wine. If all you drink is one glass, the pathway reverts back to normal within an hour, but after three glasses, you’ll need a full 24 hours before you’re no longer hijacked. This implies that drinking, and keeping at it, is obviously what’s needed to become addicted, but possibly far less than we’d imagine.
We already knew that a night of drinking makes us dumber. We also knew that drunk us isn’t always the real us, though it can certainly just be an amplified version. A more philosophically intriguing question this study raises is to what extent our drunk memories are accurate, and to what extent we’re merely pawns, being secretly rewired to view the booze-induced world as better and more fun, a world we want to be in all the time. Surely we’re not such suckers for the sauce. But if fruit flies are to be believed, it’s not looking good.