The drinking habit is ubiquitous in human societies, and notable for the best and worst reasons. More and more evidence that documents the effects of alcohol on the human organism continues to be gathered by scientists. As is usual with prolific research about one specific subject, there are some surprising and seemingly counterintuitive findings that leave scientists scratching their heads in confusion. One of the unexpected new discoveries about the effects of alcohol is the seeming improvement of memory recall of recently learned information (specifically before the drinking event). This ironic observation contrasts with the prevailing literature documenting the detrimental effects of the substance on neurological health.

An ambiguous relationship with alcohol

Scientists at the University of Exeter recruited 88 people for the study: 31 males and 57 females, all social drinkers. The participants underwent word recall and picture memorization tasks before being divided in two groups. One group was instructed to drink at will the following night while the other group was instructed not to drink. The following day, all participants repeated the cognitive tasks. Scientists observed that those who drank alcohol the previous night performed better in the word recall test than those who didn’t drink. This disparity in results was only observed in the word test; the picture memorization test results remained indistinguishable. Nevertheless, the findings proved to be statistically significant, and the drinkers’ performance improvement was even proportional to the amount of alcohol ingested.

It is not entirely understood how alcohol improved the drinkers’ performance in the word recall test. Researchers speculate that alcohol might ‘turn down’ the hippocampus ability to form new memories, thus reinforcing the consolidation of previously learned information. Presumably, this causes short-term memories to be assimilated into long-term memory. While this discovery seems to have opened new doors to boost memory performance in several contexts, it remains important to note that excessive alcohol consumption on a regular basis has ultimately damaging effects on the brain. The cognitive, psychological and physical side effects of alcoholism are devastating.

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This is the first study that has followed people in their homes, and corroborates the findings of previous similar studies done in laboratory settings. This unexpected discovery could be useful in the constant search for new ways to ingeniously maximize human cognitive performance.

Academic environments, especially educational environments, are filled with social drinkers who often abuse of the ritual. Unfortunately, promoting the short-term benefits of moderate drinking to memory could also be a persuasive factor resulting in alcohol popularization in general.