Drink danger: The brain only stops developing when you hit your mid-20s
Going on a bar crawl is often considered a rite of passage among teenagers going to university and is the standby entertainment for sports clubs and societies.
But these nights out could be causing serious damage to their developing brains, according to a University of Cincinnati study.
A team led by Tim McQueeny took high-resolution brain scans of 29 weekend binge drinkers who were aged between 18 and 25. The men drank five or more drinks a night while the women had four or more drinks.
They found high alcohol intake was linked to cortical-thinning of the pre-frontal cortex – the section of the brain related to paying attention and making decisions. It is also key in processing emotions and controlling impulses that otherwise lead to irrational behavior.
Mr McQueeny examined the brain’s gray matter, the parts of brain cells that do the thinking, receiving and transmitting of messages.
‘We have seen evidence that binge drinking is associated with reduced integrity in the white matter, the brain’s highways that communicate neuron messaging, but alcohol may affect the gray matter differently than the white matter,’ he said.
The pilot study examined whether the researchers could see a relationship between gray matter thickness and binge drinking among college-aged young adults.
They found that greater number of drinks per binge is associated with cortical thinning.
‘Alcohol might be neurotoxic to the neuron cells, or, since the brain is developing in one’s 20s, it could be interacting with developmental factors and possibly altering the ways in which the brain is still growing,’ he warned.
The findings affect a significant population. A report from the Institute of Alcohol Studies found 59 per cent of British young adults had gone drinking with the intention of getting drunk.
In the U.S., the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that 42 per cent of Americans aged between 18 and 25 have engaged in binge drinking.
Mr McQueeny added that the depressant effects of alcohol emerge later in life, so for young adults, the effect of alcohol can be very stimulating and activate tolerance over time.
‘In the past, in terms of what’s known about the physical toll of alcohol, the focus on neurobiology has been in pathological populations and adult populations who were disproportionately male, so there was a significant gap in research in terms of when people started risky drinking.
‘We’re looking at developmental aspects at an age when binge drinking rates are highest, and we’re also looking at gender effects,’ he said.
Mr McQueeny’s advisor, Professor Krista Lisdahl Medina, added: ‘Our preliminary evidence has found a correlation between increased abstinence of binge drinking and recovery of gray matter volume in the cerebellum.
‘Additional research examining brain recovery with abstinence is needed.’
Mr McQueeny will present the findings this week at the 34th annual meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism in Atlanta.
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