Binge Drinking Brains

Alcohol binges affect the brain differently than constant drinking

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

(RxWiki News) Is it better to drink alcohol frequently in smaller amounts or on occasion in larger amounts? Can binge drinking actually change how the brain functions?

A recent study tested regular moderate drinking vs. episodes of binge drinking on rats.

This research showed changes in memory and self-control from binge drinking, but not from moderate, daily drinking.

"Seek help with binge drinking."

Oliver George, PhD, senior researcher, and George Koob, co-director of the Pearson Center for Alcoholism and Addiction Research at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), co-authored the study.

Dr. Koob said, “This research is giving us a window into the early development of the addiction process.”

For the study, researchers gave two groups of rats access to alcohol, either 24 hours per day, seven days per week, or 3 days per week.

Researchers were looking for changes in brain function similar to what has been seen in human beings, as they become alcoholics.

They monitored the groups of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain that operate control over executive functions; like self-control, memory, inhibition and awareness and control of actions.

Researchers found in the group of rats with access to alcohol only 3 days per week, the groups of neurons in the PFC were more active than the other group.

In fact, the more active those neurons were, the more the rats drank the next time they had alcohol in the cages.

The rats in the total-access-to-alcohol group did not drink as much alcohol over the entire study as the 3 days per week group.

Dr. George said, “They just drink a bit like the French way, the equivalent of a couple of glasses of wine every day, and they’re fine. They don’t escalate.”

The 3 days per week group did worse on working memory tests than the 7 days per week group.

Researchers saw changes in the brain tissue of the 3-day per week group as well. The PFC was not connected to parts of the brain it was supposed to regulate.

Dr. George said, “We suspect this very early adaptation of the brain to intermittent alcohol use helps drive the transition from ordinary social drinking to binge drinking and dependence.”

“It’s like a lot of things in life that the brain perceives as good—if it loses access to it, you feel bad, you get into a negative emotional state, say a little bit frustrated, and so you take more the next time you have access.”

Dr. Koob explained the impaired brain function in the 3-day per week rats was restored after 2-weeks away from alcohol, but became impaired again if the rats started drinking again.

Dr. Koob said, “This process would be of particular concern in adolescents and young adults, in whom the PFC isn’t even fully developed.”

Authors hope these findings help the scientific community develop pharmaceuticals to treat alcohol addiction.

This study was published in October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Funding for this research was provided by the National Institutes of Health and the Pearson Center for Alcoholism and Addiction Research at The Scripps Research Institute.

No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 25, 2012
Last Updated:
October 28, 2012