If you're trying to learn something new, a recent study suggests that unwinding with a few drinks after studying could help improve your brain's ability to retain the information you just went to the trouble to learn.
Drinking and memory
In the study, 88 social drinkers undertook a word-learning task. The goal of the researchers was to observe how alcohol consumption might influence memory in terms of this specific test. Each participant was told either to drink as much as they liked (the experimental group) or not at all (the controls). The next day, participants did the same task—and those that had consumed alcohol the day before could recall more of what they'd learned the second time around.
The researchers said it's not certain what causes the effect, but that alcohol blocks the absorption of new information, conserving the brain's resources. It therefore has more ability to transform information just learned from short to longer-term memory—a process sometimes called consolidation—without interference from new information.
In fact, to a point, more alcohol was better. The team also discovered a link between memory recall and the amount of alcohol consumed, something earlier laboratory studies had already suggested. Specifically, the more alcohol the participants consumed the day before, the better they performed at the word-learning task.
Although this may be making binge drinkers jump for joy, don't go there. Despite the beneficial effects found by these researchers, the team confirmed what science has already clearly established: excessive consumption of alcohol has a definite negative effect on memory, not to mention physical and mental health. This study compared 0, 1, 2, and 3 doses of alcohol, which correspond to the same number of drinks, over the course of a two-day period.
On the other hand, researchers have found that people who drink 14 to 21 doses of alcohol per week are at higher risk for hippocampal atrophy, a type of brain damage to the hippocampus, compared with those who consume no alcohol. This kind of damage causes disorientation and memory loss and is associated with Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and severe depression, among other problems. Another study of young drinkers found that heavy alcohol use can change the brain's electrical activity.
The bottom line with this research? Stick to drinking after you need to learn, not before or during, and keep your use moderate for best results.