Binge drinking during adolescence can have lasting effects on brain function, according to a new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

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Researchers say that binge drinking during adolescence could cause brain changes that persist into adulthood.

Binge drinking – defined as men consuming five or more drinks and women drinking four or more drinks in 2 hours – is a serious problem in the US. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 90% of alcohol consumed among under-21s is in the form of binge drinking.

Past research has documented the effects of binge drinking on the brain – particularly during adolescence – when the brain is still developing. Studies have linked heavy alcohol use among teenagers to changes in myelin – the protective coating surrounding nerve fibers that boosts communication between neurons – and cognitive impairment later in life.

But according to study co-author Heather Richardson, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it has been unclear whether such brain changes are a direct result of alcohol consumption or other factors.

With a view to finding out, Richardson and colleagues assessed the effects of alcohol consumption on the brains of male adolescent rats.

For 2 weeks, one group of rats had access to sweetened alcohol each day, while the other group – acting as controls – had access to sweetened water.

The researchers explain that – like teenagers – rats have a preference for sweet beverages and were happy to work for their drink by pressing a lever that granted access to it. This triggered high levels of voluntary alcohol consumption among the rats, similar to that of adolescent binge drinking in humans.

At the end of the study period, the researchers analyzed the brains of the rats – particularly their levels of myelin.

They found that the rats that drank the sweetened alcohol every day for 2 weeks had reduced myelin in the prefrontal cortex of the brain – a region of the brain crucial for decision making and the regulation of emotions – compared with the rats that drank the sweetened water.

When assessing myelin levels in the rats’ brains months later – when they had reached adulthood – they found the rats that had consumed the sweetened alcohol during adolescence continued to show reduced myelin levels in the prefrontal cortex.

Commenting on these findings, Richardson says:

Our study provides novel data demonstrating that alcohol drinking early in adolescence causes lasting myelin deficits in the prefrontal cortex.

These findings suggest that alcohol may negatively affect brain development in humans and have long-term consequences on areas of the brain that are important for controlling impulses and making decisions.”

Furthermore, the researchers note that when the rats that consumed alcohol during adolescence were exposed to alcohol again in adulthood, the effects on the brain were comparable in each instance, even though the rats consumed less alcohol for shorter durations during adolescence. The researchers say this indicates that in teenage years, the brain may have heightened sensitivity to alcohol.

In another experiment, both groups of rats were subject to a working memory task as adults, which tested their ability to retain new information for short periods.

The adult rats that had consumed alcohol during adolescence displayed a poorer performance on this task, compared with the adult rats that drank the sweetened water during adolescence.

Richardson and colleagues say their findings indicate that as well as causing lasting structural damage to the brain, binge drinking during adolescence may impair cognitive functions associated with learning and memory later in life.

The team says they hope their findings will pave the way for new strategies to treat alcohol use disorders. In addition, they say that “results from this work focusing on the prefrontal cortex could also help us better understand the function of myelin and how myelin deficits may contribute to other psychiatric conditions associated with prefrontal impairments, such as impulsivity, Tourette syndrome and schizophrenia.”

In May of this year, MNT reported on a study published in PLOS ONE claiming that just one binge drinking session could be harmful to health.