Binge drinking affects brains of university students, study finds

Adolescent brain more sensitive to neurotoxic effects of alcohol than the adult brain

Binge drinking could lead to nursing more head troubles than a hangover – it could alter brain functioning and memory, a new study suggests.

Researchers conducted a study of first-year Spanish university students to look at the impact binge drinking had on their attention and visual working memory processes.

The study defined binge drinkers as males who drink five or more standard alcoholic drinks within a two-hour interval on one occasion. Women who drank four or more drinks under the same conditions were classified as binge drinkers.

A total of 95 students from the University of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwest Spain ranging in age from 18 to 20 took part. Forty-two students – including 21 females – were classified as binge drinkers. The remaining 53 – including 26 females – were identified as “control” students – those who didn’t drink enough to raise concerns.

A technique known as event-related potential, or ERP, was used to examine the participants in the study, which is slated to be published in the November issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

An ERP is the electrophysiological brain response to internal or external stimuli. Researchers paid close attention to monitor the negative and positive waveforms in the brain that are components of ERPs. The waveforms are associated with attention and working memory processes and have been shown to be particularly sensitive to alcohol.

Researchers found healthy young university students – meaning those with no alcohol use disorder, drug use, alcohol dependence or associated psychiatric disorders – who engaged in binge drinking required more attentional effort to complete a given task. That said, the task was still executed correctly.

“These electrophysiological differences found suggest the need on the part of binge drinkers for greater attentional processing during the task in order to carry it out correctly,” corresponding author Alberto Crego wrote in an email to The Canadian Press.

The ERPs were recorded during a visual “identical pairs” continuous performance task. Abstract figures were randomly presented in the centre of a computer monitor placed 100 centimetres in front of the subject’s eyes.

Students were instructed to press a button when two consecutive identical stimuli appeared and not to respond in the other cases. That meant they had to maintain each figure present in their working memory and had to respond if the next figure was the same.

Crego said the differences observed in the study may reflect impairment in both attention and working memory processes.

“Despite adequate performance, if alcohol-induced disruption increases, then performance-related problems may emerge.”

What’s more, researchers write that it has been suggested that the adolescent brain is more sensitive to the “neurotoxic effects” of alcohol and binge drinking than the adult brain, especially structures of the brain that mature later on in development. But Crego notes that further research is needed to clarify the effects of binge drinking on working memory. Longitudinal studies are also needed to understand the evolution of the binge drinking pattern “and of associated neurofunctional and behavioural alterations,” he wrote.

Florence Kellner, senior research and policy analyst with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, said the real significance of the research “might be a bit up in the air.”

“What we don’t know really is the long-term impact, which is will (these) differences endure in later life,” she said in an interview from Ottawa. “One thing we do know is that young students when they drink heavily they tend to clean up their acts quite a bit when they graduate, get jobs and have their families, especially when they have children, that’s the tendency.”

Kellner said what’s of more immediate concern and consequence surrounding youth and heavy drinking involves those who do so simply for the sake of getting drunk.

“That has immediate consequences that I’d worry about much more than I would worry about the brainwaves,” she said. “People get into arguments, they get into accidents, they get into physical fights, they have sex they didn’t intend to have and on and on and on.”

“If they can’t get up the next day to attend class and to study. If they get themselves hurt, if they lose friends, if they get into accidents – it does have consequences.”

According to the 2004 Canadian Addiction Survey, individuals aged 18 to 24 who had consumed alcohol in the past year had the highest percentages when it came to weekly heavy drinking. Heavy drinking was defined as having five or more drinks on one occasion for men, and four or more drinks for women.

The survey found 16.1 per cent of 18-to 19-year-olds and 14.9 per cent of 20-to 24-year-olds engaged in heavy weekly drinking.

– The Canadian Press