Binge Drinking Harms Memory; Riskier for Teen Girls

Alcohol, when consumed immoderately, hits brain regions that enable functions such as learning, memory, and reasoning, with teen girls being more vulnerable to the harms of binge drinking than their male counterparts, two recent studies found.

Binge drinking can block vital receptors in the brain leading to production of steroids that hinder some key brain functions, neuroscientists from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis discovered.

The research, recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that excessive intake of alcohol affects the hippocampus, a major component of brain, and other regions of the brain that are critical to cognitive functions such as consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory.

The researchers, who carried out experiments on slices of the brains of rats exposed to alcohol, explained the blockage of vital receptors in the brain produces steroids which weaken long-term potentiation (LTP), which is enhancement of signal transmission between neurons enabling learning and memory.

“It takes a lot of alcohol to block LTP and memory. But the mechanism isn’t straightforward. The alcohol triggers these receptors to behave in seemingly contradictory ways, and that’s what actually blocks the neural signals that create memories,” study senior investigator Dr. Charles F. Zorumski said in a statement. This explains, he added, why individuals who get drunk often don’t remember what they did the night before.

However, there is no proof yet of alcohol damaging brain cells, Zorumski added. “As a matter of fact, even at the high levels we used here, we don’t see any changes in how the brain cells communicate. You still process information… You haven’t passed out. But you’re not forming new memories.”

According to a similar study by researchers from California, published in the Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research journal, excessive intake of alcohol leads to reduction in brain activation especially in teenage girls.

This study involved neuropsychological tests on adolescents in the age group of 16 to 19 after they were made to drink more than three pints of beer or more than four glasses of wine, for women, and four pints of beer or a bottle of wine, for men, at one sitting. The researchers, from various universities in America, then conducted the same tests on those who had not consumed alcohol and compared the results.

The experts found that alcohol in younger women reduced brain activation affecting concentration, logical thinking, and reasoning as compared to the women who had not consumed alcohol. They warned that drinking could hamper younger women’s activities such as driving, playing certain sports, and using a map.

However, these changes were found lesser in men. “Male binge drinkers showed some, but less, abnormality as compared to male non-drinkers. This suggests that female teens may be particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of heavy alcohol use,” said Susan Tapert, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, in a statement.

The study was in line with what National Institute of Alcoholic Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) says: About women’s bodies react differently to alcohol than men’s bodies and therefore women face particular health risks and realities.

“Research shows that women start to have alcohol-related problems at lower drinking levels than men do. One reason is that, on average, women weigh less than men. In addition, alcohol disperses in body water, and pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men do. So after a man and woman of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, the woman’s blood alcohol concentration will tend to be higher, putting her at greater risk for harm. Other biological differences, including hormones, may contribute, as well,” NIAAA explains on its website.