When taking a drag of a cigarette in a crowded room, there will always be a Negative Nancy who reminds you of how bad smoking is for your health. But funnily enough, you will never get told what a hangover can do to you.

According to the latest research done by Dr Lauren Owen, a postdoctoral researcher at Keele University’s School of Psychology in the United Kingdom, a hangover or the symptoms thereof (when alcohol levels in the blood descend back to zero) impairs brain function. While the hangover itself is not entirely understood from a medical perspective, it has been found that one of the main symptoms, dehydration, and certain chemicals in alcohol, play a large role in killing off brain cells.

One of these chemicals is ethanol, the most common form of alcohol in drinks. When the body breaks ethanol down, it turns it into acetate which can be expelled from the body. However, acetate may turn into acetaldehyde (a toxic molecule) for a short period of time and attach itself onto the neuronal cells in the brain, causing them to die. This means that even people who only drink alcohol occasionally are slowly turning their brains into vegetables.

Although Dr Owen’s findings are only preliminary, it is already known that the working memory is mostly affected when a person consumes alcohol. This memory is situated in the forebrain or, to be more exact, in the orbitofrontal cortex, which analyses information to predict or foresee the possible outcome of an action. When this area of the brain is damaged, it is difficult to control cravings for alcohol and allows for poor decision-making. Even though this happens to people of different ages, it has been found to have worse effects on younger people, especially when they first experience a hangover.

The late Dr Sydney Cohen, a researcher and a former director of the United States’ National Institution of Mental Health, pointed out that human beings are wired to accelerate learning during young adulthood and adolescence.Therefore, hangovers can have worse effects on young people because they are still in this accelerated learning phase. And to make matters worse, there is not really much of a chance to outrun the dreaded hangover with age. Although it is a proven fact that hangovers get worse with age, it appears that the number of hangovers one has decrease as the years go by. Dr Richard Stephens, a psychology lecturer at Keele University, says that with age, “people generally suffer fewer hangovers”, but mostly because older people learn what kinds of alcohol they can and cannot handle. Redemption, an alcohol-free movement that focuses on promoting alcohol-free bars, has done their own research and found that the average hangover tends to last for 9 hours and 45 minutes. In and around this time, there is a 5-10% drop in the working memory’s performance. Dr Owen’s findings also indicate a 30% increase in brain errors while the research participants were hungover. It was also found that the reaction time of a hungover person in his/her mid-twenties was equal to that of a person in their forties.

Dr Owen’s research is the follow-up study of Drs Fulton Crews and Jennifer Obernier from the University of North Carolina’s Bowles Centre for Alcohol Studies, who studied the effects of hangovers in rats (whereas Dr Owen used human participants). With Crews and Obernier’s study, rats were put in water forcing them to find their way to a platform. After giving some of the rats alcohol, they put the rats back in the water but repositioned the platform. The rats that were not given alcohol were able to find the newly placed platform, whereas the ones who were given alcohol kept going back to the place where the platform used to be and never altered their course to where the platform was moved.

During adolescent and young adult years, we learn how to deal with a lot of change, such as moving away from home, dealing with the pressures of varsity and challenging the working arena. Having hangovers at this stage in life can diminish our ability to adapt to new surroundings.

Illustration: Modeste Goutondji

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