New research on alcohol’s affect on brain activity helps to explain that age-old phenomenon: why people do stupid things when they are drunk.
University of Missouri researchers found alcohol dulls the brain signal that warns people when they are making a mistake, ultimately reducing self-control.
“When people make mistakes, activity in a part of the brain responsible for monitoring behavior increases, essentially sending an alarm signal to other parts of the brain indicating that something went wrong,” said researcher Bruce Bartholow, Ph.D.
“Our study isn’t the first to show that alcohol reduces this alarm signal, but contrary to previous studies, our study shows that alcohol doesn’t reduce your awareness of mistakes – it reduces how much you care about making those mistakes.”
In the study, researchers measured the brain activity of 67 participants, ages 21-35, as they completed a challenging computer task designed to elicit some errors.
About one-third of the participants were given alcoholic drinks, while the rest were given no alcohol or a placebo beverage.
Study participants’ mood, their accuracy in computer tasks and their perceptions on their respective computer abilities were also measured.
Investigators discovered the brain’s “alarm signal” in response to errors was significantly dampened in those who had consumed alcohol, and the response was largest for those in the placebo group.
However, those in the alcohol group recognized they had made a mistake on about the same level as participants in the other groups, indicating that alcohol’s reduction of the brain’s “alarm signal” did not occur simply because those in the alcohol group were unaware of their errors.
The findings also showed that those who had consumed alcohol were less likely to slow down and be more careful in the task following errors.
“In tasks like the one we used, although we encourage people to try to respond as quickly as possible, it is very common for people to respond more slowly following an error, as a way of trying to regain self-control.
“That’s what we saw in our placebo group. The alcohol group participants didn’t do this,” Bartholow said.
Mood appeared to influence the size or magnitude of the brain’s alarm signal. Additionally, most of the participants in the alcohol group reported feeling “less negative” after drinking than before.
Bartholow said the findings are an important step forward in understanding how alcohol’s effects on the brain contribute to the kinds of mistakes and social blunders people sometimes make when they’re drunk.
“There are certain circumstances under which reducing the brain’s alarm signal could be seen as a good thing, because some people, like those with anxiety disorders, are hypersensitive to things going wrong. In some people, a small amount of alcohol can take the edge off those anxious feelings, but consistently drinking as a way to reduce anxiety can lead to serious problems, including alcoholism,” said Bartholow.
“But generally speaking, having a strong brain response to mistakes promotes better self-control and helps people avoid making further mistakes in the future. ”
Source: University of Missouri