MU School of Medicine Researcher Develops Tool to Measure Alcohol-Induced Blackouts

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A tool could help clinicians identify at-risk individuals

Alcohol-induced blackouts are common among young adult drinkers and can have serious consequences ranging from sickness to overdose. Blackouts are periods of alcohol-induced amnesia, when the drinker is awake and able to interact with others but often can’t remember those events the next day.

Existing tools that measure blackouts do not differentiate between “en bloc” blackouts, which involve complete memory loss during intoxication; and “fragmentary” blackouts, which involve partial loss of memories that can be pieced together. Now, researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine have created an Alcohol-Induced Blackout Measure (ABOM) as a reliable tool to differentiate between “en bloc” and “fragmentary” blackouts and to predict the potential consequences of those incidents.

Mary Beth Miller
Mary Beth Miller, PhD

“Differentiating between degrees of blackout will help us understand the prevalence, predictors and consequences of a broader range of alcohol-induced memory impairment,” said Mary Beth Miller, PhD, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the MU School of Medicine. “To achieve these goals, we needed a reliable way to measure alcohol-induced blackouts.”

Miller tested the ABOM in a study involving 350 individuals college students between the ages of 18-29 who had an incident in the past 12 months when they could not remember events that happened while they were drinking. Participants completed an anonymous online survey that consisted of questions that assessed the type of blackout experienced, the amount of alcohol consumed and any alcohol-related consequences that resulted. One month later, 109 of the initial participants completed a follow-up survey. Researchers analyzed the data and determined the ABOM scores predicted alcohol-related consequences, such as feeling sick to one’s stomach, at baseline and one-month follow up.

“We hypothesized that greater drinking quantity would be associated with greater blackout frequency and greater blackout frequency would predict alcohol-related consequences,” Miller said. “We discovered higher scores on the ABOM were a predictor of alcohol-related consequences, above and beyond the influence of drinking quantity. Given the association between blackouts and other alcohol-related consequences, blackout assessments may be a valuable screening tool in clinical settings by helping to identify individuals at risk for other alcohol-related problems.”

Miller believes the strong association between blackout frequency and alcohol problems should encourage additional research to examine the cut-off score that most accurately identifies those at high-risk. Until that research is conducted, Miller recommends the scale only be used to quantify the frequency of blackout experiences.

In addition to Miller, the study authors include three collaborators from the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at the Brown University School of Public Health: Angelo DiBello, PhD, assistant professor of psychology; Jennifer Merrill, PhD, assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences; and Kate Carey, PhD, professor of behavioral and social sciences.

The study, “Development and initial validation of the alcohol-induced blackout measure,” was recently published in the journal Addictive Behaviors. The research reported in this publication was supported by a Research Excellence Award from the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The authors of the study declare that they have no conflicts of interest related to this study. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the views of the funding agencies.