Young binge drinkers show altered brain activity

September 14, 2017
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Researchers have studied the brain activity of young binge-drinking college students in Spain, and found distinctive changes in brain activity, which may indicate delayed brain development and be an early sign of brain damage.

For many students, college involves a lot of socializing at parties and at bars, and alcohol is a common factor in these social environments. Excessive alcohol use, in the form of binge drinking, is extremely common among , and one study has estimated that as many as one third of young North Americans and Europeans binge drink.

So, what defines binge drinking? The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes a binge as drinking five or more drinks for men and four or more for women within a two-hour period, and for many college students, these limits wouldn't equate to a particularly heavy night. Previous research has linked binge drinking to a variety of negative consequences including neurocognitive deficits, poor academic performance, and risky sexual behavior.

While numerous studies have shown that the brains of chronic alcoholics have altered , there is also evidence that bingeing can change adolescents' brains. Eduardo López-Caneda, of the University of Minho in Portugal, investigates this phenomenon.

"A number of studies have assessed the effects of binge drinking in young adults during different tasks involving cognitive processes such as attention or working memory," says López-Caneda. "However, there are hardly any studies assessing if the brains of binge drinkers show differences when they are at rest, and not focused on a task."

In a recent study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, López-Caneda and colleagues set out to see if the resting brains of college students showed any differences compared with those of their non-bingeing counterparts.

The researchers recruited first year college students from a university in Spain, and asked them to complete a questionnaire about their drinking habits. Students that had participated in at least one binge within the previous month were considered to be binge drinkers, whereas non-bingers had never binged before. By attaching electrodes to the students' scalps, the scientists could assess electrical activity in various brain regions.

Compared with the non-bingers, the binge drinkers demonstrated altered brain activity at rest. They showed significantly higher measurements of specific electrophysiological parameters, known as beta and theta oscillations, in brain regions called the right temporal lobe and bilateral occipital cortex.

Surprisingly, previous studies have found very similar alterations in the brains of adult chronic alcoholics. While the young bingers in this study might occasionally consume alcohol to excess, they did not fit the criteria for alcoholism. So, what does this mean?

The changes might indicate a decreased ability to respond to external stimuli and potential difficulties in information processing capacity in young binge drinkers, and may represent some of the first signs of alcohol-induced .

The brains of adolescents are still developing, meaning that they might be more vulnerable to the effects of . "These features might be down to the particularly harmful effects of alcohol on young brains that are still in development, perhaps by delaying neuromaturational processes," says López-Caneda.

The researchers stress that they need to carry out further studies to confirm if the features they have observed in these young binge drinkers are caused by their bingeing, and if their might be impaired. However, the results suggest that bingeing has tangible effects on the young , comparable with some of those seen in chronic alcoholics. "It would be a positive outcome if educational and health institutions used these results to try to reduce consumption in risky drinkers," says López-Caneda.

Explore further: How serious is binge drinking among college students with disabilities?

More information: Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00168

Related Stories

How serious is binge drinking among college students with disabilities?

June 22, 2017
A new study finds that college students with disabilities binge drink more often than their non-disabled student peers. The study, providing the first picture of alcohol use and binge drinking by US college students with ...

Heavy drinking during adolescence—dire effects on the brain

July 18, 2017
What would a celebration be without alcohol, whether we are talking about a private or professional event? Drinking alcohol, is a well-engrained and long-standing social habit in many countries around the world, even though ...

Binge drinking down among young adults in college, up among those who are not

July 27, 2017
After years of increasing rates of binge drinking, alcohol-impaired driving, and alcohol-related mortality among emerging adults ages 18 to 24, the numbers are finally starting to come down among college students in that ...

Youth binge drinking, cardiovascular disease possibly linked

April 26, 2017
University of Illinois at Chicago researchers are conducting a study to determine whether binge drinking is related to cardiovascular disease in young adults who are not predisposed to the condition.

Nearly 32 million Americans engage in extreme binge-drinking: study

May 17, 2017
Almost 32 million US adults admit to extreme binge-drinking at least once in the past year, meaning they consumed eight to 10 alcoholic beverages—or more—in a single sitting, US government scientists said on Wednesday.

Binge and high-intensity drinking is increasing for U.S. young adults in their late 20s

June 5, 2017
Monitoring changes in drinking patterns and amounts helps researchers, prevention professionals, and treatment providers plan for and respond effectively to personal and public harms associated with alcohol consumption. This ...

Recommended for you

Study reveals breakthrough in decoding brain function

September 25, 2017
If there's a final frontier in understanding the human body, it's definitely not the pinky. It's the brain.

Overturning widely held ideas: Visual attention drawn to meaning, not what stands out

September 25, 2017
Our visual attention is drawn to parts of a scene that have meaning, rather than to those that are salient or "stick out," according to new research from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. ...

The rat race is over: New livestock model for stroke could speed discovery

September 25, 2017
It is well-known in the medical field that the pig brain shares certain physiological and anatomical similarities with the human brain. So similar are the two that researchers at the University of Georgia's Regenerative Bioscience ...

Touching helps build the sexual brain

September 21, 2017
Hormones or sexual experience? Which of these is crucial for the onset of puberty? It seems that when rats are touched on their genitals, their brain changes and puberty accelerates. In a new study publishing September 21 ...

Gene immunotherapy protects against multiple sclerosis in mice

September 21, 2017
A potent and long-lasting gene immunotherapy approach prevents and reverses symptoms of multiple sclerosis in mice, according to a study published September 21st in the journal Molecular Therapy. Multiple sclerosis is an ...

Neuron types in brain are defined by gene activity shaping their communication patterns

September 21, 2017
In a major step forward in research, scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) today publish in Cell a discovery about the molecular-genetic basis of neuronal cell types. Neurons are the basic building blocks that ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.