Binge Drinking Damages Brains of Young Adults

Binge drinkers are people who consume enough alcohol in short drinking episodes (i.e., binges) to qualify as legally intoxicated. In the U.S., young adults participate in this type of alcohol consumption more often than people in any other age range. According to the results of a study scheduled for publication in 2014 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, young adults who binge drink (especially those who experience alcohol-related memory disruptions called “blackouts”) can develop damaging changes in their normal brain function that may set the stage for future diagnosable cases of alcohol abuse or alcoholism.

The Basics

As a rule, binge drinkers imbibe enough alcohol within about two hours to elevate their blood alcohol levels to 0.08 percent or higher. This practice of rapid intoxication is linked to a range of seriously negative short- and long-term consequences, including such things as accidental injuries, purposeful acts of violence, participation in unsafe sex, alcohol poisoning, liver damage and several forms of heart disease. Figures released in the fall of 2013 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that the peak rates for binge drinking in the U.S. occur among teenagers and young adults between the ages of 18 and 34. The single highest rate (45.1 percent) occurs among those between the ages of 21 and 25. In descending order, the next highest rates appear in 26- to 29-year-olds (37.7 percent), 30- to 34-year-olds (33.7 percent) and 18- to 20-year-olds (30.5 percent). In addition, the level of binge drinking participation is 25 percent or higher for all adults between the ages of 35 and 49.

Drinking and Brain Damage

When the human brain is exposed to alcohol, it undergoes short-term changes in its chemical environment that manifest as the symptoms of alcohol intoxication. Exposure to alcohol also alters the normal function of a number of other chemical systems that keep the brain working properly over time. If a person drinks repeatedly in heavy amounts, he or she can develop long-term changes in the brain’s environment that foster the onset of physical alcohol dependence and alcoholism. Some of these changes occur within the brain’s pleasure center (called the limbic system), while others occur in chemical networks that usually slow down or speed up the brain’s rate of communication as required by a given set of circumstances. It is the cumulative damage triggered by these alcohol-related brain alterations that establishes alcoholism as an ongoing disease process.

Signs of Damage in Young Adults

In the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers from Harvard Medical School and Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital used a modern technology called magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to examine the nerve cell and chemical function inside the brains of a group of 54 young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 identified as alcohol consumers. Twenty-three of these individuals were participants in binge drinking, while the remainder only consumed relatively small amounts of alcohol. The researchers further divided the binge-drinking group into individuals who had experienced a blackout while drinking and individuals who had not experienced a blackout while drinking. The MRS exams focused on the presence of several brain chemistry changes known for their ability to contribute to the onset of alcoholism.

After completing their analysis, the researchers concluded that, compared to young adults who never binge drink, those young adults who do binge drink undergo changes in the normal levels of two key alcoholism-related brain chemicals. They also concluded that, compared to binge drinkers who don’t experience blackouts, binge drinkers who do experience blackouts undergo changes in the normal levels of a third key alcoholism-related brain chemical. In addition, the researchers concluded that, compared to their non-binge-drinking counterparts, young adult binge drinkers with altered brain chemical levels have a harder time controlling their behaviors, experience a decline in their ability to adapt to their immediate surroundings and suffer more real-world alcohol-related harm.

Significance and Considerations

The participants in the study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research did not have diagnosable cases of alcohol abuse or alcoholism (now known collectively as alcohol use disorder). However, the study’s authors believe that their findings demonstrate that young adults who binge drink may undergo changes in brain function that act as precursors for the symptoms of diagnosable alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism. These changes may be especially likely in those binge drinkers who experience blackout-related memory impairment.

Posted on March 27th, 2014
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

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