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New Research: Teen Binge Drinking and Brain Damage

Monday, August 01, 2011



Binge drinking: more than short-term risk

As the days of summer draw to an end, teenagers might be ready to end their summer on a party note with some last wild nights with high school friends or the college-bound set are preparing for some nights of heavy boozing as soon as they matriculate. However, a new study at the University of Cincinnati shows that these nights of heavy drinking might lead to irreversible brain damage in young adult binge-drinkers.  

Damage to still-growing brains

This study is the first of its kind conducted in the US. It took high-resolution brain scans of 29  “weekend binge drinkers” aged 18 to 25. For this study, binge drinking qualifies as four or more drinks consumed at one time for females, and five or more for males. Forty-two percent of young American adults aged 18 to 25, engage in binge drinking, according to a publication from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The scans showed evidence of cortical thinning of the pre-front cortex, according to researcher Tim McQueeny, a doctoral student in the UC Department of Psychology who presented the findings at the 34th annual meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism. This section of the brain relates to executive functioning such as paying attention, planning and making decisions, processing emotions and controlling impulses leading to irrational behavior.

Because the brain still grows through the early twenties, consistent and heavy drinking could be altering its development. “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,” he says.

RI Hospital's Dr. Jason Hack

Dr. Jason Hack, the division director of Medical Toxicology at University Emergency Medicine Foundation and an attending physician at Rhode Island Hospital, said that even if the study makes important findings, they might not be examining enough patients. “This is a ‘pilot’ study of a very small population—there were 29 patients,” he says. 

But, Hack says that with the right findings, this could help to reduce teen drinking. “I think that knowledge is very powerful,” says Hack. “If this data is confirmed in larger studies, perhaps it might affect people belonging to this at-risk group to make a different choice than binge drinking.”


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