A new study from the University of Cincinnati demonstrates that binge drinking in young adulthood may seriously damage the still-developing brain. Tim McQueeny, a doctoral student in the University of Cincinnati Department of Psychology, will present his findings at the 34th annual meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism in Atlanta, Georgia.
The researchers performed brain scans on 29 people between the ages of 18 and 25 who engaged in binge drinking on weekends (having four or more drinks in one sitting for females and five or more for males), and found that the binge drinking was associated with cortical thinning of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is related to executive functioning such as making decisions, controlling impulses, and processing emotions.
The researchers examined the brain’s gray matter, areas of the brain involved with thinking about, receiving, and transmitting messages. McQueeny wrote that their findings provide evidence that binge drinking is linked with reduced white matter, which helps the brain communicate neuron messaging, and that alcohol affects the gray matter of the brain differently than the white matter.
The study found that the higher the number of drinks consumed during binge drinking, the more cortical thinning occurs. McQueeny plans to perform future research as to whether binge drinking affects the brain’s gray matter and white matter differently. He said that alcohol could be neurotoxic to the neuron cells, or it could interact with the brain’s developmental factors, possibly changing the ways in which the brain grows during the ages of 18 to 25.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that 42 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have engaged in binge drinking, meaning that a significant amount of people could be causing developmental damage to the brain when binge drinking.
Because the depressive effects of alcohol emerge later in life, alcohol can be stimulating in young adulthood, and a tolerance can be developed. McQueeny noted that past research of the physical effects of alcohol has been focused on pathological populations and male adult populations, so there is a gap in the research in terms of the age at which people started binge drinking.
McQueeny said the new research looks at an age when binge drinking rates are highest, and also looks at gender differences. He added that there may be indications of early damage without alcohol abuse or dependence, meaning that binge drinking occasionally may still cause damage when the brain is still developing.
UC psychology professor Krista Lisdahl Medina, senior author of the paper, said that the preliminary evidence shows an association between increased abstinence of binge drinking and recovery of gray matter in the cerebellum, which suggests that the damage is reversible, although more research is needed. She added that young adults should be aware that they may be damaging their brain as a result of binge drinking.
Source: Science Daily, Possible Brain Damage in Young Adult Binge-Drinkers Revealed in New Study, June 27, 2011