April 10, 2008

The neuroscience of Flunk Day

It is spring. Countless mornings you awake at ungodly hours to the noise of students running, banging things, and yelling “It’s Flunk Day!” But you are not fooled. In fact you are annoyed with these students who wake you up at 7 a.m. when you know full well that it’s not even Flunk Season yet. You know better.

But then it happens. This time people are trying to climb in your window, it is not 7 a.m. but hours earlier, there are more people yelling, they are more determined with their banging. It is in fact, finally, Flunk Day.

Immediately as your brain registers this, the hormone/neurotransmitter epinephrine (better known as adrenaline) begins to make its way through your synapses. It is hitting you and even though it is 5 in the morning and you went to bed less than four hours before (making you unable to hit even the most restful REM cycle where your brain begins to process dreams), you are AWAKE. Your frontal lobes spring into action: you need a plan. Get out of bed. Find your friends. No, put clothes on first, no one really likes you naked. No not those clothes, you’re going into the mudpit idiot, different clothes. Yes, those. Where are your shoes? Shoes? You’ll lose shoes, forget the shoes. Keys, you need your keys before you sprint from the room. Shit, keys, you may lose those too. Don’t lose the keys, keep the keys, you will want the keys.

As you dash into the bright sunlight, your visual system (with aid from your fusiform gyrus) immediately recognizes the faces of your friends Jack and Jill. Hello Jack! Hello Jill! How are you this morning?

As Jack stumbles toward you, you can tell that his morning wake-up activities included something that yours did not. Jill confirms that she and Jack had some of the leftovers from Jack’s recent 21st birthday. You both laugh as Jack, normally shy and reserved, yells at everyone around him and tries to throw people into the mudpit. Although Jack is generally pretty timid, in this state he has become quite gregarious. You note that at low doses alcohol, like all sedatives, relaxes people and reduces anxiety. In a quiet setting, this tends to make people sleepy, but in the high energy, social environment of Flunk Day, Jack has become a social butterfly with a slightly skewed self-perception.

It is clear to both Jill and you that Jack is much more inebriated than Jill is, even though she says they had the same amount to drink. She correctly attributes this to the fact that she had slept more the night before, while Jack had been up late working on a paper. Also she notes that she had a large dinner and a snack late at night, while Jack has been on diet. Jill speculates that the grapefruit juice Jack was drinking with his alcohol may have something to do with it as well; she thought she remembered her neuroscience friend Mariko mentioning that grapefruit juice inhibits a specific liver enzyme that metabolizes alcohol. More than anything, Jill thinks it’s because her body is more used to alcohol since she turned 21 a few months ago, while Jack just had his birthday, and has had less exposure. You remember that Jack is also on antidepressants which often potentiate the effects of alcohol, but since you’re not sure if he would want Jill to know, you decide not to mention it.

Instead, you inform Jill that Jack has actually been drinking for years in his frat-house basement, but this could actually contribute to Jack’s lack of tolerance this fine flunky morning. In response to Jill’s quizzical facial expression, you explain to her that the body’s tolerance to drugs is not simply a conditioned response to repeated drug exposure. In fact, any stimulus that coincides repeatedly with the drug’s administration shares the ability to initiate tolerance to the drug. In Jack’s case, you explain that the familiar setting of his frat basement serves as a complex set of stimuli associated with his previous drinking experiences. And as a result, his drinking prowess in the cellar does not transfer to the drastically different context of this morning’s festivities. This must be why Jack already looks like he’s gonna chunder.

Despite the fact that you have not had any alcohol, you too feel a little silly just watching your friends. As you know from your enlightening Neuro courses at Knox, many of the same regions of the brain tend to be active whether you are performing a task, or watching someone else do the same task. This astounding (but not well understood) “mirror neuron” system may be what gives you an uncanny ability to empathize with, and be influenced by the state and behavior of people around you.

Consequently, you have the inexplicable urge to emulate the surrounding individuals as you dive face-first into the mud pit. It is COLD. The thermoreceptors in your skin send messages to the hypothalamus in your brain, which promptly slows all sweat mechanisms and activates the minute muscles under your skin that give you goosebumps and raise the hair on your body to keep you warm. Arterioles under the surface of your skin begin to contract to keep the blood more focused on the core part of your body where it can prevent your core temperature from dropping faster. Good thing your hypothalamus is paying attention.

As you are removing yourself from the wet dirt, Jack jumps on you again. Somehow, he seems a bit more flirtatious on this morning. In fact, despite the fact that alcohol is technically a sedative-hypnotic class of drug, it usually enhances human sexual response in low doses. With its diffuse nature in the brain, it’s hard to say what makes this the case, but most likely it’s because of the uninhibiting effect. Jack is much more likely to have an alcohol-induced lapse in judgment and hit on someone who, in fact, he should not try to seduce. Of course, in higher doses, with alcohol’s suppression of mechanoreceptors that are responsible for sensations like touch, it becomes an inhibitor of sexual activity. This, however, does not make Jack any less frisky.

After an hour in the foam pit followed by a very muddy shower, you find yourself across campus, and you are tired. You woke up early, it is now naptime. Again, you run into Jack and Jill. This time, Jack’s gaze feels a bit unwieldy. His gait is almost comically compromised and it’s hard for you to comprehend his slurred and sloppy (literally) speech. You glance at Jill as she just rolls her eyes, her arm supportively clamped across Jack’s slumping shoulders. Jill’s a dutiful friend, but her stand-up efforts are no match for the obscene volume of alcohol currently coursing through Jack’s blood and cerebrospinal fluid. In the middle of his “story”, Jack loses control of his eyelids as they drop just slightly before the rest of his body does. Jack’s brain has had enough, and since brain is boss, Jack is passing out.

Being a nascent observer of college party behavior, you reason Jack must have blacked out some time earlier. Although blackouts are often dismissed, joked about, or even encouraged around campus, the resultant physical slowing of neurons in Jack’s hippocampus has made it near impossible for them to work fast enough to encode short-term memory into long-term recollections that Jack can cherish into his old age. You know he will recover, but the experience will leave a mark. Fortunately, you and Jill are there to direct his collapse onto a fresh clump of grass and provide assistance. Thankful for your ability to think ahead, you whip out your trusty Flunk Day water bottle to see if Jack will drink some of the good stuff.

Holding the cold, clear liquid up to Jack’s lips is all it takes to arouse his awareness to the task at hand and he imbibes heartily. Once Jack has sat himself up and devoured the granola bar you handed him, Jill suggests she walk Jack back to his room to get some rest. Knowing full well that Jack could be in for quite the hangover once he sobers up, you insist he keep your water bottle as a last stand against the all-too-familiar debilitator. As you watch the pair saunter off, you heave a deep sigh of relief and serene contentment about the emotional release of a rip-roaring Flunk Day, and make your way for bed, puke-stains or not.

Adin Horowitz

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