Binge drinking in childhood can cause damage to brain for life

Reuters / Damir Sagolj
Binge drinking as a teenager can affect the brain for life, a study has found. It is caused by alcohol impeding the part of the brain, the hippocampus, which is responsible for the development of learning and memory, before it has fully matured.

The research was conducted on adolescent rats, which were regularly given alcohol. Afterwards, the rodents received no further alcohol as they grew into adulthood. However, they noticed the rats had problems, such as poor concentration levels and the ability to learn new skills.

The study also found that the rats, which had binged during adolescence, looked and acted like immature rats. However, they did not have the characteristics of a younger rodent, as they were not quicker or stronger.

"At first blush, you would think the animals would be smarter, but that's the opposite of what we found,” said the lead author of the study, Scott Swartzwelder, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University.

The damage to the hippocampus, the part of the brain, which is responsible for memory development, can also make people more susceptible to injury, trauma and disease, the researchers found.

“In the eyes of the law, once people reach the age of 18, they are considered adult, but the brain continues to mature and refine all the way into the mid-20s,” the lead author of the study, Dr Mary-Louise Risher, a post-doctoral researcher at Duke University, said.

“It's important for young people to know that when they drink heavily during this period of development, there could be changes occurring that have a lasting impact on memory and other cognitive functions,” she added.

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Long-term potentiation (LTP) is a persistent strengthening of a synapse – a structure that permits a nerve cell, to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another cell. This helps a person to acquire new information or to remember things. LPT is at its height when a person is young as a child is able to absorb large amounts of new memory.

“Something happens during adolescent alcohol exposure that changes the way the hippocampus and other regions of the brain function and how the cells actually look - both the LTP and the dendritic spines have an immature appearance in adulthood,” said Swartzwelder.

According to the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking is defined by a person’s blood alcohol concentration being at 0.08 grams per deciliter or above. This normally occurs when men have five drinks or more in a two-hour period, or women have four in the same time period.