Underage Drinking Damages the Brain

Teenage binge drinking causes serious health problems

(RxWiki News) It’s not a joke when experts say binge drinking is dangerous. Binge drinking is a serious problem for adults, so it only makes sense that the problem is even worse for teenagers.

A new study finds that binge-drinking has become more prevalent among teenagers, and that even indulging once a month can have disastrous affects on brain development. Girls may be more susceptible to alcohol because they tend to have earlier brain development than boys of the same age.

"Don’t binge drink. No joke. It can melt your mind!"

Lead author, Susan F. Tapert, chief of psychiatry at the VA San Diego Healthcare System and professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, found that teenage girls are more affected by heavy drinking compared to girls who did not drink. Heavy drinking was considered to be four or five alcoholic drinks in one night.

The girls who engaged in heavy drinking had less activation in many brain regions when doing spatial working memory (SWM) tasks. The reduced brain activity in binging girls was also linked to impaired attention and working memory ability.

SWM refers to the ability to perceive space around you, while working memory refers to the ability to use information that is already in the mind. Inability to use working memory can result in difficulty driving, playing sports, using a map, or even remembering the directions for somewhere you’ve gone a hundred times.

Teenage boys who drank showed only a slight difference in brain activity, compared to male non-drinking teens.

Girls may also be more vulnerable because they have slower metabolic rates, higher body fat ratios and lower body weight. So alcohol affects girls more quickly and stays in their bodies longer.

Brain development continues throughout most of your life. The teen years are particularly important because that’s when the frontal region of the brain is developing and maturing. The frontal region is key to higher-level thinking like planning and organizing.

The study included 95 boys and girls, 40 binge drinkers and 55 non-drinkers, who were between the ages of 16 and 19. The participants were asked to partake in neuropsychological testing, substance use interviews and SWM tasks. The SWM results were measured with a functional magnetic resonance imaging.

Tapert says these findings show that boys and girls of the same age react differently to alcohol.. Binge drinking, even just for the weekend, can have serious consequences, she concludes.

The research is published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Review Date: 
July 20, 2011