How Quickly Do Teenagers’ Brains Recover From Binge Drinking?
Many teenagers in the U.S. who consume alcohol participate in binge drinking, a dangerous practice that inevitably ends in legal intoxication. Researchers know that adults who regularly binge drink can undergo brain changes that make them unusually sensitive to environmental cues that increase the likelihood of future alcohol consumption. In a study scheduled for publication in July 2015 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers from three U.S. institutions assessed the level of alcohol cue sensitivity in the brains of binge-drinking teenagers not addicted to alcohol. These researchers concluded that increased cue sensitivities associated with alcohol binging largely fade away when teens abstain from drinking and other forms of substance use for at least a month.
Teenagers and Binge Drinking
All binge drinkers imbibe enough alcohol to get legally drunk in no more than two hours. Such a pattern of rapid intoxication is associated with a broad range of seriously harmful outcomes for the individual. Examples of these outcomes include steeply increased chances of getting involved in a major accident, steeply increased chances of being physically assaulted or physically assaulting someone, steeply increased chances of being sexually assaulted or sexually assaulting someone and steeply increased chances of consuming enough alcohol to develop potentially fatal alcohol poisoning. In addition, people who frequently binge drink develop sharply elevated risks for alcohol use disorder (diagnosable alcohol abuse and/or addiction), and also have long-term risks for substantial declines in physical health.
Findings compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that more than one-fifth (21 percent) of all American teenagers binge on alcohol in the average month. When overall teen alcohol consumption is taken into account, fully 90-plus percent of the total volume of intake occurs in a binge-drinking context. In addition to the harms generally associated with binging, adolescents have risks that include seriously diminished academic outcomes, school-related disciplinary problems, disrupted or delayed brain development and disrupted or altered puberty.
All alcohol consumption takes place in a social and environmental context. If a person commonly drinks with a particular group of people or in a particular physical environment, he or she can begin to consciously or unconsciously associate that group of people or that physical setting with drinking. In turn, such an association can lead to the formation of cues that increase the chances that alcohol consumption will occur whenever that person is in the presence of habitual drinking companions or in a location where drinking commonly happens. Researchers and addiction specialists are well aware that the establishment of alcohol cues inside the brain contributes significantly to alcohol craving, a strong urge for additional drinking that constitutes one of the 11 potential symptoms of alcohol use disorder.
How Quickly Do Teens’ Brains Recover?
In the study scheduled for publication in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the University of California San Diego, the Veterans Administration and the Medical University of South Carolina used a small-scale project involving 38 teenagers to help determine how quickly non-addicted, binge-drinking teens recover from increased sensitivity to alcohol cues inside the brain when they stop drinking and using other substances. Twenty-two of the project participants were between the ages of 16 and 19 with a known history of alcohol binging. The remaining 16 participants were age-matched adolescents who either did not drink or only consumed alcohol in small amounts.
The researchers used real-time brain scans to look for telltale signs of increased alcohol cues inside the brains of both groups of adolescents. In addition, they used urine testing to confirm abstinence from alcohol use and other forms of substance intake. After analyzing the gathered data, the researchers concluded that after one month of alcohol and substance abstinence, the binge-drinking teenagers experienced a meaningful decline in their sensitivity to alcohol cues. In most areas of the brain, these teens had a level of cue sensitivity no higher than their counterparts who only drank lightly or didn’t consume any alcohol.
The study’s authors believe their findings demonstrate the adolescent brain’s ability to recover from binge drinking relatively rapidly, at least as long as an alcohol-consuming teenager has not developed a diagnosable case of alcohol use disorder. They also believe their findings may eventually help improve efforts to prevent teen binge drinking and help teens who already binge on alcohol.