Can Binge Drinking Permanently Damage the Teen Brain?
Binge drinking is defined by the consumption of enough alcohol to reach a legally intoxicated blood alcohol content within 120 minutes. People who regularly binge drink steeply boost their risks of developing alcohol use disorder (a condition that includes both alcohol abuse and alcoholism).
In a study published in October 2014 in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from two U.S. universities used animal experiments to assess the long-term brain effects of heavy alcohol binging in adolescence. These researchers concluded that teens who binge heavily may permanently damage their brains’ wiring, even if they don’t keep drinking as adults.
About Binge Drinking
Binge drinking is partially defined by the gender of the person consuming alcohol. Boys and men typically qualify as bingers when they consume at least five standard servings of alcohol (3 fluid oz of pure alcohol) in two hours or less. Girls and women usually weigh less than their male counterparts and also process alcohol at a slower rate; for this reason, they typically qualify as bingers when they consume at least four standard servings of alcohol (2.4 fluid oz of pure alcohol) in two hours or less.
All binge drinkers increase their risks for forms of serious short-term harm that include motor vehicle crashes, falls and other types of accidents, intentional injury through physical assault, intentional injury through sexual assault, alcohol poisoning and exposure to dangerous and potentially lethal infections as a result of participation in unsafe sex. In addition to increasing their odds of developing alcohol use disorder, regular binge drinkers incur long-term risks that include nerve damage, liver damage, cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) problems, such as hypertension and stroke, and loss of the ability to properly manage certain chronic illnesses.
Teens and Alcohol Binging
The overwhelming majority of all alcohol consumed by teenagers and other underage drinkers is consumed within the context of binge drinking. According to nationwide 2013 figures from a federally sponsored project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, less than 1 percent of all 13-year-olds binge on alcohol in the typical month. The rate of monthly binging rises to 4.5 percent among 14- and 15-year-olds. It rises even higher to 13.1 percent among 16- and 17-year-olds.
The monthly binge drinking rate among the oldest teenagers (viewed as young adults by public health officials and grouped with 20-year-olds) reaches a peak of 29.1 percent. Underage binging rates vary widely across local regions throughout the country. As a general rule, teenagers in the northern half of the continental U.S. binge drink substantially more often than teens in the lower half of the continental U.S.
Permanent Teen Brain Damage from Binge Drinking?
In the study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Massachusetts and Louisiana State University used laboratory experiments on rats to gauge the potential long-term brain effects of heavy alcohol binging during adolescence. Specifically, the researchers looked at the changes that heavy binge drinking produces in a substance called myelin, which normally insulates and protects the brain’s nerve wiring.
The researchers gave a group of adolescent rats free access to alcohol for a two-week period of time in a situation that mimicked heavy alcohol binging in humans. When these rats reached adulthood, the researchers examined the myelin in their brains. Half of the adult rats were affected by alcoholism and went through a 30-day period of alcohol abstinence prior to testing.
The researchers concluded that heavy binge drinking during adolescence significantly damaged the condition of the myelin inside the rats’ brains. This damage occurred in a key brain area responsible for maintaining higher-level logical thinking skills. The researchers also concluded that, as adults, the rats that binged on alcohol the most during adolescence showed clear signs of memory impairment. Crucially, the memory impairment occurred in rats that did not drink as adults and in adult rats affected by alcoholism.
The study’s authors concluded that heavy alcohol binging during adolescence can potentially produce lasting myelin damage in adulthood, even if alcohol consumption doesn’t continue into adulthood. The observed damage may be permanent or it may ultimately decrease with the passing of time.
The authors also note that heavy teen binge drinking apparently leads to shrinkage in part of the brain and may make adults affected by alcoholism more prone to relapse during recovery. Additional research will be needed to confirm or disprove these results in human teenagers and adults.
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