Not a Trace: Blackout Drinking Reduced by Brief Counseling


Newswise — Drinking too much too quickly can have many harmful consequences, including alcohol-induced blackouts – where the individual continues to function and make decisions, but later has little or no memory of the events. Blackout drinking is associated with accidents and risky behaviors, may have long-term effects on brain development and function, and is linked to increased risk for alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorder (AUD) symptoms in the future.  College students ─who report higher levels of alcohol use than the general population ─are at particular risk of experiencing alcohol-induced blackouts and their damaging consequences. This calls for a simple, cost-effective intervention to reduce blackout drinking in this group.

Short, empathetic counseling sessions – known as brief motivational interventions (BMIs) – have been effective for reducing problematic alcohol use and drinking-related problems among college students. BMIs are delivered by a trained clinician and typically involve alcohol education and personalized feedback on the individual’s drinking behavior and consequences. This study investigated whether BMIs could reduce blackout drinking in heavy drinking college students by analyzing data from three previous clinical trials of brief alcohol interventions. Although the trials were not aimed at evaluating alcohol-induced blackouts, data on participants’ experience of a blackout were acquired, both at the start of the study and at follow-up timepoints after receiving the intervention. Across the trials, 62% of students ─none of whom were actively seeking treatment for their drinking ─reported experiencing a blackout from drinking.

In the new analysis, researchers found that students who attended two BMI sessions – a standard session plus a supplemental session one week later ─were much less likely to report  blackouts 1 and 6 months later than a control group of students who had not had the intervention. The study compared two supplemental sessions: one focused on relaxation training, the other attempting to increase engagement in academics and other rewarding activities. The interventions may have shifted the pattern of drinking, for example towards drinking less quickly, and increased engagement in rewarding alternatives to drinking.  However, the beneficial effect of the intervention waned after 6 months, suggesting that booster sessions may be required. Neither a single BMI session, nor a computerized intervention, were effective for reducing alcohol-induced blackout.

A pair of short counseling interventions, lasting no more than two hours in total, may therefore offer a simple means to markedly reduce the occurrence, and consequences, of alcohol-induced blackouts among young people who drink heavily.

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