Most people who engage in binge drinking are adolescents, and recent surveys show that 12 percent of 8th graders, 22 percent of 10th graders, 28 percent of 12th graders, and 44 percent of college students report engaging in binge drinking within the last two weeks.
Adolescence is a crucial time period for brain development, as the cortex hits a peak in growth and neurons are rearranged. Some people say that these changes in the brain help adolescents adjust to adulthood.
Fulton Crews, PhD., professor of pharmacology and director of the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, said that adolescence is also a time when the neural circuits in the brain are more sensitive to disruption, and that studies have shown that the developing adolescent frontal cortex is much more sensitive to damage than the adult frontal cortex, even with the same amount of alcohol.
Dr. Crews wanted to know more about the impact of binge-drinking in the teen years on the brain and how it could affect them in adulthood. For more than ten years, Dr. Crews’ research has looked into the mechanisms, characteristics, and consequences of binge drinking on the brain. His most recent study found that even subtle changes in the brain’s frontal cortex could affect decision-making and associated behaviors in adults.
Brain scans showed that adolescent binge drinking in rats led to a smaller forebrain volume and size in adults. The animals also showed significantly less behavioral flexibility compared to those that weren’t exposed to alcohol.
The study also found reductions in the activity of neurotransmitter genes 24 hours after binge-drinking in adolescent animals. As adults, the animals showed even greater reductions, averaging 73 percent.
Dr. Crews said that their findings suggest that people who drink heavily during adolescence could be more likely to have difficulty adapting successfully to changing life situations as adults, possibly because of changes to the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that is associated with predicting consequences, impulse control, reasoning, and long- and short-term rewards.
Dr. Crews noted that even though the changes in his experiment were subtle, the implications for those with a history of binge drinking could be significant. He noted that although it is widely known that adolescents who drink heavily are more likely to get in accidents and engage in risky behavior, very few people question whether binge drinking in adolescence can lead to brain damage.
The researchers concluded that their study suggests that drinking heavily in adolescence can lead to increased impulsivity and poor decision-making skills that can negatively affect one’s life in adulthood.
Source: Science Daily, Underage Binge Drinking Can Create Lasting Brain Changes, April 4, 2011