According to a recent study carried out by Duke University and recently published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, binge drinking during the teenage years can carry long-term effects that lead well into adulthood.
The new study stemmed from the hypothesis that alcohol abuse during adolescence renders an individual at heightened risk for developing cognitive dysfunction, neurological impairments, and alcohol abuse disorders. The new study involved modeling adolescent alcohol abuse in rats and testing the rats for long-term structural and functional changes in the adult brain. Male rats were exposed to binge drinking-like levels of alcohol 10 times over a 16-day period during adolescence.
They were then left to mature into adulthood normally over a period of 24 to 29 days, and then the cells from their hippocampus were compared with those of control rats. The results were surprising: the neurons from the alcohol-exposed rats exhibited stunted and misshapen connections to other neurons, and when stimulated, these neurons exhibited hypersensitivity that would interfere with the brain’s ability to balance excitement and inhibition in the brain. These damaged neurons, it turns out, pointed to a brain that was underdeveloped and likely incapable of storing memories and learning in a way that a typical adult brain can.
The results of the study, then, confirmed that alcohol use during the brain’s formative years does in fact develop abnormalities in the structure and function of the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain most closely associated with memory and learning. Moreover, the cells of the hippocampus can be expected to become more vulnerable to injury from disease or trauma after chronic binge drinking during adolescence. This means that the brain during adolescence is much more susceptible to the damaging physical influences of alcohol than is the brain that is fully developed—scientific backing to support those concerned about underage drinking.
These findings are alarming when considering a 2005 study by the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The study found that about 90 percent of alcohol consumed under the age of 21 is consumed in the form of binge drinks—that is, a form of drinking that brings an individual’s BAC to a level of 0.08 grams per deciliter or above. With these new findings about teen binge drinking comes the home that binge drinking during adolescence will have much less of a draw than it once had.