Neurobiologist Hitoshi Morikawa of the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at The University of Texas at Austin says drinking alcohol primes certain areas of the brain to learn and remember better.
However, the common view that drinking is bad for learning and memory isn't wrong, Morikawa says.
"Usually, when we talk about learning and memory, we're talking about conscious memory," Morikawa says in a statement. "Alcohol diminishes our ability to hold on to pieces of information like your colleague's name, or the definition of a word, or where you parked your car this morning. But our subconscious is learning and remembering too, and alcohol may actually increase our capacity to learn, or 'conditionability,' at that level."
Alcoholics aren't addicted to the experience of pleasure from alcohol but to the constellation of environmental, behavioral and physiological cues that are reinforced when alcohol triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, Morikawa says.
"People commonly think of dopamine as a happy transmitter, or a pleasure transmitter, but more accurately it's a learning transmitter," Morikawa says. "It strengthens those synapses that are active when dopamine is released."
The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, says alcohol, used in this model, is the enabler, hijacking the dopaminergic system telling the brain whatever the person is doing at that moment is rewarding and thus worth repeating.