Alcohol’s Effect on Memory

Alcohol abuse is a serious condition for many reasons, but one of the most overlooked reasons is that alcohol abuse can lead to several types of memory loss. Research shows that alcohol has a significant impact on the brain’s ability to make and retain memories, to think clearly and to function correctly.

There are different stages of memory loss related to alcohol abuse. The first stage of alcohol-induced memory loss is fragmentary memory loss or ‘brownout.’ This is the term used when excessive drinking causes a person to temporarily forget events during the drinking episode until someone else provides a clue or prompt, such as: ‘Do you remember last night?’ These prompts usually allow the fuzzy images of the night before to reemerge.

The next stage of memory loss is blackouts. Blackouts occur during heavy alcohol consumption, which inhibits the brain from completing the process for making memory. Unlike brownouts, a person who ‘blacks out’ will not be able to recall any of the events during the blackout period, even if prompted, and will forever lose that gap of time.

The final and most serious stage of memory loss is alcohol dementia, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. This is a combination of two disorders: Wernicke’s Disorder, in which poor nutrition (specifically low thiamine levels) damages the nerves in both the central and peripheral nervous system, and Korsakoff’s Syndrome, which impairs memory, problem-solving skills and learning abilities. This disorder is commonly linked to alcoholism.

People with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome will appear fairly normal at first: they are able to carry on conversations normally, have average intellect, and are able to recognize family members and old friends they met before the onset of the illness. After the onset of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, however, the ability to form new memories is nearly absent. A person with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome will repeat comments or questions several times during a conversation and will forget they already greeted you. This is because they have no memories of any event that occurs after the onset of their illness.

Treatment for alcohol-induced memory loss, specifically Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, involves a combination of nutritional and medication-based therapy. During nutritional therapy, lost thiamin levels must be immediately restored intravenously or directly into the digestive system. Medications that are used to successfully treat Alzheimer’s disease have also been shown to help improve the memory of patients with Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

Memory loss is a warning sign that excessive drinking is occurring. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism that is left untreated can lead to brain damage that has lasting effects on memory. If you or someone you love has a problem with alcohol and exhibits any sign of memory loss, seek treatment right away. Alcohol rehab will provide a variety of treatment options, including detox, counseling, group and individual therapy, residential treatment programs, education and family involvement. The earlier you treat the alcohol addiction, the easier it will be to reverse the damage the alcohol has done to your memory.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.