Study finds alcohol hangovers hamper learning and reward processing in the brain

New research published in Psychophysiology indicates that alcohol’s detrimental effects on the brain extend into the period of a hangover.

“It is well known and common sense that while we are intoxicated we are impaired. However, what is less sure is how ‘impaired’ we are when we are hungover,” explained study author Olav E. Krigolson of the University of Victoria

“We joke about being a bit slow, but we were curious if that really reflected a difference within the brain — in this case — a neural learning system.”

In the study, 62 undergraduate students took part in a computerized gambling task while the researchers recorded their electrical brain activity. The task was designed so that participants could learn through trial and error how to maximize their win-loss ratio.

About half of participants were hungover, and had consumed an average of 6.0 alcoholic drinks the previous night.

The researchers found that these hungover students performed worse on the gambling task. This reduced performance was associated with lower electrical activity in the brain in response to receiving a reward.

“Practically speaking, if you are hung over it might not be the best time to try and learn something new or make decisions that are feedback dependent. If you plan a big night out – take the next day off,” Krigolson told PsyPost.

The study — like all research — includes limitations.

“We did not look at all at things that might alleviate this effect — for instance – our hungover participants did have a lot to drink but we did not examine the impact of eating before you go to bed or drinking a lot of water. My guess is that this would not help you much and the learning system would still be impaired,” Krigolson said.

“Any good scientist would say that this is just a start and a lot more work needs to be done!”

The study, “Alcohol hangover impacts learning and reward processing within the medial‐frontal cortex“, was authored by Ashley D. Howse, Cameron D. Hassall, Chad C. Williams, Greg Hajcak, and Olav E. Krigolson.