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Binge Drinking During Adolescence Impacts Memory Function

As if alcohol consumption wasn’t dangerous enough to teenagers, a new study has revealed a link between binge drinking during adolescence and later damage to the brain region that controls memory function.

Researchers at Northumbria University in North East England conducted the first study to consider the impact of excessive drinking during adolescence and its repercussions on prospective memory—the ability to recall and perform a planned activity in the future. During teenage years, the brain is not yet fully matured. When teenagers consume heavy amounts of alcohol during this crucial stage of brain development, they run the risk of permanently damaging their brain’s functionality in adulthood.

Researchers tested 50 student volunteers from several universities at Northumbria on their ability to remember to carry out certain tasks. Of the participants, 21 were classified as binge drinkers (for women, this meant drinking the equivalent of 6 glasses of wine, or for men, 6 pints of beer, at least twice a week). Twenty-nine participants were considered to be non-binge drinkers. For the study, participants were shown a 10-minute film of a shopping district in Scarborough, and then were asked to complete a series of instructional tasks once they saw specific locations from the film.

The teenage binge drinkers recalled significantly fewer locations and action responses than the non-binge-drinking teenagers. Even after removing other contributing factors to memory function—such as illicit substance use (including marijuana, ecstasy, or tobacco) or use of alcohol within the past 48 hours—teenage binge drinkers still showed to have lower prospective memory skills than their non-binge-drinking peers. Furthermore, researchers found no differences in age, anxiety, or depression levels between the two study groups. Surprisingly, the study also found that the binge drinkers did not consider themselves to have impaired memory skills. This response shows that teenagers who consume heavy amounts of alcohol are quite unaware of the gravity of damage that alcohol causes to their neurological development.

Prospective memory is the brain’s way of remembering to perform everyday tasks such as following through with a scheduled doctor’s appointment, attending a planned event with friends, or remembering to buy needed household items from a store. As a consequence of binge drinking while the brain is still in the process of development, the researchers conjecture, neuro-cognition may become somewhat hindered. Even though the researchers discovered this relationship between teenage binge drinking and damaged prospective memory, further research is needed to identify the exact brain mechanism that is being impaired during this process.

The researchers caution that what are considered to be “safe” drinking levels for adults are not the same for adolescents. In fact, there are no “safe” levels of drinking for individuals at this young age, not only because adolescents are inexperienced with alcohol consumption and have no tolerance, but also since the brain is still maturing its physiological structure and neurotransmission functionality. By engaging in heavy drinking behavior, teenagers are putting themselves at a heightened risk of permanent neurological damage.

Sources: Northumbria University, No safe level--first study to show teenage binge drinkers harm abilities in later life, July 29, 2010

JournalLive.UK, Nicole Juncar, North teens letting booze go to their heads, July 31, 2010

Posted on August 2nd, 2010
Posted in Teen Issues

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