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Friend or foe? Drunk, the brain can’t tell

Scans show that when sobriety goes so does the ability to make key assessments

When the brain wears beer goggles it can’t see the difference between scary or threatening situations and safe ones.

Researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Md., used fMRI scanners to peer into the brains of a dozen intoxicated volunteers and find out how alcohol eases inhibitions and prompts often unwise behavior.

When people drink, neural circuits in the visual system and parts of the brain involved in assessing threats are not as active as they are when people are sober, the team discovered. The brain’s reward system, however, becomes more active under the influence. That combination could lower anxiety and allow intoxicated people to approach others at a party more readily, but the mix also makes the inebriated more likely to take rash actions or stumble into sticky situations.

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