Study: Binge drinking harms young brains

New research says young binge drinkers may be seriously damaging their brains.

Researcher Tim McQueeny, a doctoral student in the University of Cincinnati Department of Psychology, will present his findings in Atlanta this week at the 34th annual meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism.

In his study, high-resolution brain scans on a sample of 29 weekend binge drinkers aged 18 to 25 found that binge-drinking –- defined as consuming four or more drinks in one incident for females and five or more drinks for males -– was linked to cortical-thinning of the pre-frontal cortex, the section of the brain related to such "executive functions" as paying attention, planning and making decisions, processing emotions and controlling impulses leading to irrational behavior. McQueeny examined the gray matter -- 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 says.

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. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says 42% of young Americans ages 18 to 25 have engaged in binge drinking.

“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 says.

The research was supported by a $300,000 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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