Why is it difficult to pay attention after consuming alcohol?

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  • People have difficulty paying attention when they are under the influence on alcohol
  • Researchers have found that being intoxicated leads to changes in brain chemistry
  • These changes lead to the inhibition of hormones that promote focus

Researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio released a paper showing that drinking alters brain chemistry, which makes it difficult to pay attention when under the influence of alcohol.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

Staying focused

Norepinephrine can be defined as a hormone and a chemical messenger. It is key in helping you to pay attention and is released by the brain when focus is needed.

Senior author of the paper, Dr Martin Paukert, explains, “When we want to focus on something, or when we stand up from a chair and become active, a brain stem nucleus releases a chemical called norepinephrine. Acute exposure to alcohol inhibits this signal in the brain.”

The role of norepinephrine

While scientists knew that the locus coeruleus (a structure in the brain) secretes norepinephrine, they did not fully understand what happens after it is secreted. Dr Paukert and his team were able to show that when the norepinephrine is secreted, it attaches to Bergmann glia (receptors on cells), leading to elevated calcium levels in the cells. 

“To our knowledge, this paper is the first description that norepinephrine in mammals directly binds to receptors on the Bergmann glia and activates them through calcium elevation,” Dr Paukert stated. The researchers explained that during alcohol intoxication, calcium activation of the necessary cells is inhibited and as a result, contributes to drinkers' difficulty paying attention.

It was expected that the inhibition in the rise of calcium in the Bergmann glia would also explain why people are off balance when they are under the influence, but it did not. 

Dr Paukert explained, “The calcium elevation in Bergmann glia is not critical for motor coordination, which is somewhat surprising because the cerebellum is classically known for its role in motor control. However, our findings are in line with current suggestions that the cerebellum also plays critical roles in non-motor functions, and that astrocytes are not only supporting basic brain maintenance, but they may actively participate in cognitive function.”

READ | A new device could help you sober up faster – through breathing

READ | Your smartphone may be able to tell if you're drunk by analysing your walk

READ | This man has a rare condition where he gets drunk without drinking a drop of alcohol

Image credit: Mahrael Boutros, Pexels

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