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Binge drinking in young adulthood: What happens to the brain?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Binge drinking

Researchers have shown with brain scans how binge drinking in young adulthood thins an area of the brain responsible for higher thinking, decision making and paying attention.

In studies, four or more drinks at a time for females age 18 to 25 and five or more drinks for males was found to lead to damage in the brain’s grey matter.

The possible effect of binge drinking is serious injury to parts of the brain that send signals, according to researchers from University of Cincinnati.

Tim McQueeny, a doctoral student in the UC Department of Psychology says, “We have seen evidence that binge drinking is associated with reduced integrity in the white matter, the brain’s highways that communicate neuron messaging, but alcohol may affect the gray matter differently than the white matter.”

McQueeny examined the brains of 29 weekend drinkers, age 18 to 25.

What he found was thinning in the cortical area of the brain that correlated with higher alcohol intake during binge drinking episodes.

“Alcohol might be neurotoxic to the neuron cells, or, since the brain is developing in one’s 20s, it could be interacting with developmental factors and possibly altering the ways in which the brain is still growing,” said McQueeny.

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The cortical area of the brain, or cerebral cortex, plays an important role in memory and consciousness.

McQueeny says past studies have focused on the physical effects of alcohol among abusers. Few studies have looked at how binge drinking, considered acceptable among young adults, may be impairing the brain long-term.

He explains, “There might actually be indications of early micro-structural damage without the onset of pathological symptoms such as abuse, or dependence on alcohol.”

Abstinence might reverse effect of binge drinking

Binge drinking is highest among young adults, making the finding important. The good news is - abstaining from alcohol might reverse the effect on the brain.

UC Psychology Professor Krista Lisdahl Medina, served as senior author on the paper said, “Our preliminary evidence has found a correlation between increased abstinence of binge drinking and recovery of gray matter volume in the cerebellum. Additional research examining brain recovery with abstinence is needed.”

Because binge drinking is considered acceptable among young adults, Medina says educating about the possible dangers of alcohol, which extend beyond drinking and driving, might be important.

Medina also says it’s possible that brain damage could occur with less alcohol intake during young adulthood. The authors also note alcohol has a depressant effect that may manifest later in life from tolerance. Over time, imbibing becomes less stimulating.

Forty two percent of young adults admit to binge drinking. The University of Cincinnati study suggests alcohol early in life might have long lasting implications from altered brain growth and development.

Image credit: Morguefile