More Bad News for Binge Drinkers
Binge drinking has been having a hard time lately. A number of new studies were recently released, all of which highlight some of the more damaging effects of rapidly consuming alcohol.
In the latest one, researchers from Duke University and across the country looked at how booze soaked brain cells in adolescents develop or, more importantly, don’t develop.
This study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, measure the impact of teenage binge drinking on rats. Now rats are a far cry from humans, but our brains do develop in very similar ways.
Lead study author Mary Louise Risher, a PhD researcher from Duke’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, had the following to say about adolescent brain development, “In the eyes of the law, once people reach the age of 18, they are considered adult, but the brain continues to mature and refine all the way into the mid-20s” (The LA Times).
So, what exactly did Risher and her colleagues discover? Well, large amounts of alcohol consumed during brain development will lead to “persistent abnormalities in the structure and function of the hippocampus.” This is the area that controls learning and memory.
Underdeveloped Brain Cells
Researchers uncovered a number of new facts about how excessive alcohol consumption affects still developing gray matter. Find a complete list below.
- All test were performed on male lab rats. They were given enough ethyl alcohol to simulate the results of ten binge drinking sessions. After these experiments, the rats were returned to their “home” and studied into adulthood.
- The area of the brain Risher and her team were interested in is called hippocampal area CA1. This is the area of the hippocampus that first outputs nerve signals.
- After prolonged exposure to alcohol, this area of rats’ brains was rife with damaged neurons. They were either irregular and didn’t connect properly to other neurons or they were smaller than normal.
- What this means in practical terms is that, when stimulated, these neurons reacted too strongly. Most brain cells strike a balance between “excitement” and “inhibition.” That wasn’t the case here.
- In terms of behavioral and developmental changes, the rats’ exhibited memory issues, poor attention, poor judgment, and a reduced ability to learn. In short, adult rats behaved like adolescent rats (whatever that might look like).
- This “neural immaturity” is thought to be the reason for the rats’ behavioral immaturity.
- These structural changes also put the rats at a higher risk for injury from trauma and diseases.
- Teenage binge drinking has been associated with developmental issues in other areas of the brain, specifically those that regulate impulsiveness and emotions.
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What Does This Mean?
There are several ways to interpret Risher’s research. The most basic is that binge drinking and heavy drinking during adolescence can lead to permanent brain damage. This certainly appears to be true in the case of the test rats.
In fact, the abstract of the study echoes this idea. It says,
“Taken together, these findings reveal that repeated alcohol exposure during adolescence results in enduring structural and functional abnormalities in the hippocampus. These synaptic changes in the hippocampal circuits may help to explain learning-related behavioral changes in adult animals preexposed to AIE [intermittent ethyl alcohol exposure during adolescence]” (Adolescent Intermittent Alcohol Exposure: Persistence of Structural and Functional Hippocampal Abnormalities into Adulthood)
There are, however, some other, subtler ideas to consider. Most interesting to me is the idea of genetics and alcohol abuse. If an individual drinks to excesses as an teenager, has their brain structure altered, and has kids…what then? Will the children inherit their mother or father’s abnormal brain structure?
Think about it – alcoholism is considered to be 50% genetic. Could this be why? While I don’t have an answer (after all I’m no scientist!), it makes sense. The truth remains to be seen.
Next, consider the societal implications. As of 2005, according to the Department of Justice, 90% of underage drinking occurs by binge drinking. That means we potentially have an entire generation of adolescents growing up with “lite” brain damage.
What happens as they grow and mature? What happens when they leave school and enter the workforce? What happens when they rise to positions of importance?
Again, I have no answers. I think it’s important to consider all ramifications of Risher’s research though. This line of thinking brings us to the final, and most important, question. What can be done to cut down on teenage binge drinking?
An Alcoholic Culture
There’s something to be said for increased education about the dangers of alcohol, particularly underage drinking, heavy drinking, and binge drinking. Nothing bad will come of this. Seriously, there’s not one negative consequence of increased youth alcohol education.
I don’t think it’s enough though. I think we, as a society, can do better.
I’m talking about reforming our culture of alcohol. We’ve certainly come a long way since the boozy 1900’s. Don’t believe me? Watch an episode of Mad Men. During that time period, it was perfectly acceptable to drink five martinis at lunch.
We’re a lot further along today. Still, alcohol consumption is pervasive in today’s world. If we can change this, if we can change how popular booze is, then we’re talking.