Just because you can pound down a bunch of beers or take shots all night doesn’t mean you are some kind of superhero or genetically advanced life form. It mostly likely means you have built up a tolerance to alcohol, and while good for not face-planting in the middle of the bar at the end of the night, it’s not really a badge of honor, says a new study that appeared in the journal Psychopharmacology.
Researchers gave more than 150 subjects a dose of alcohol based on their weight to get them to a specific breath alcohol concentration, then tested them on two tests that looked at the connection between the brain and motor skills. One had them do a timed, fine motor skills test that judged their ability to put pegs into holes on a board, and another where they had to match symbols with numbers, which also looked at fine motor skills but included memory and cognition aspects. They were tested at 30, 60, 120, and 180 minutes after the alcoholic drink.
The study showed that all performed worse on both tests when a little tipsy, but at a five-year follow up, those who were classified as heavy drinkers—10 to 40 drinks per week—showed evidence of tolerance, but better performance on the fine motor skills test than the light drinkers, who had fewer than six drinks per week. The boozers, however, did worse on the symbols and numbers test, suggesting that tolerance does not help with complex motor processing and short-term memory.
They also noted that maintaining fine motor skills could put heavy drinkers at risk of making dangerous decisions when under the influence as their body isn’t able to give them the feedback—fumbling and unsteadiness—that would tell a less-tolerant person that they shouldn’t attempt a task like driving.
"Overall, there is a common belief among heavy drinkers that they can 'handle their alcohol' and that many common daily tasks may not be affected by their alcohol use," said study head Ty Brumback, Ph.D. "The take-home message here is that tolerance to alcohol is not equal across all tasks and is not 'protective' against accidents or injuries while intoxicated, because it may in fact lead the heavy drinker to judge that they are not impaired and attempt more difficult tasks. Making such decisions in the moment is highly risky, because it is based on faulty information."