It's mid january and the festive season is in full swing, with all manner of champagne moments and boozed up events dotting the diary. Jennifer Paterson takes a look at exactly what happens to your grey matter when you start consuming a little too much bubbly.
No other drink of the modern era has come to symbolise celebration like Champagne, or sparkling wine ('Champagne' comes from a specific region in France). We quaff it like its going out of style over the Christmas/New Year period, and like many urban myths, most of us believe that the bubbles in champagne 'go to our heads'.
Wayne Jones, of the National Laboratory of Forensic Toxicology in Sweden has been quoted as saying that he thinks there is a "strong psychological aspect to drinking champagne. As it's a drink we consume on special occasions, it's quite likely that people are already happy and giggly."
So, champagne may not affect you any differently than gin or beer.
How much do we drink? Diana Bull from The Wine Society, says premium wine producers such as Domaine Chandon (Australian child of Moet et Chandon) sell around 80,000 bottles of sparkling wine a year.
"The Christmas/New Year period accounts for the majority of our sparkling wine sales, you'll notice an enormous amount of sparkling wine marketing happens during that time of year."
What happens to your brain when you drink?
Getting drunk is not as straightforward as it appears. During a period of extended drinking, neurons in your brain flicker on and off, your metabolic rate rises and falls, and your brain signals get mixed up.
The first effect you'll probably notice is stimulation, this occurs while blood alcohol levels remain fairly low. At around 25 milligrams per 100 millitres of blood, alcohol sensitises the brain's major excitatory message pathways. The N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) system is then more readily activated by the brain's main neurotransmitter, glutamate.
Ever wondered why the more reserved members of the office miraculously come out of their shells at the office Christmas party, becoming uncharacteristically animated? An increase in brain activity also means an increase in confidence and a subsequent decrease in inhibitions.
The party continues
So you've downed a second and third drink, and your blood alcohol level is now sitting around 50 to 80 mg per 100 mL. You'll probably find yourself flushed and euphoric, due to an increase in alpha brain waves. If we were to take a look inside the brain at this stage we would find extra blood flowing to the front, to the prefrontal cortex, and to the right side, to the right temporal cortex.
Your brain has a complex 'biphasic' relationship with alcohol. After three or four drinks the very NMDA receptors that made you feel confident and alert earlier in the evening are now refusing to respond. Another set of pathways in your brain - known as the gamma-aminobutyric acid system - are coming in to play.
Unfortunately for those wanting to maintain their euphoric 'high', this part of the brain is a major inhibitory system. It stops neurons from firing and dulls activity. From here alcohol begins to act more like a sedative, and you'll start to feel very relaxed. High doses of alcohol affect the hippocampus, which helps deal with sensory and motor information. You may find yourself having difficulty talking and walking as a result.
Alcohol consumption also affects the cerebellum, reducing blood flow to this area. This part of your brain is responsible for motor co-ordination and posture, which may explain why we tend to swagger and sway when intoxicated. The part you would gladly forget
As you continue to drink heavily, a complex series of receptors come into play. Depending on your genetic makeup, different receptors, such as those for serotonin and nicotine will be activated. Behaviours as diverse as aggression and increased sexual motivation will result.
Unfortunately you won't be able to sleep it all off particularly well. While alcohol acts as a sedative, it also surpresses rapid eye movement (REM) sleep by as much as 20 percent. This is your dreaming phase, responsible for sorting out much of the day's events. In addition to this, as your body gradually eliminates alcohol you can become more mentally aroused again, disturbing sleep.
The bit you do forget
While it's not a particularly desirable consequence of a heavy night on the booze, memory loss is often an unfortunate side-effect. Scientists agree that memory loss occurs, but there is still no definitive consensus as to why. Theories suggest that the aforementioned GABA signals which bring on sleepiness also interefere with the early and late stages of memory formation.