Spring Break Binge Drinking Can Damage Brain

Posted Mon, 03/12/2012 - 2:46pm by Camilla Cheung

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It's a familiar rite of passage for young people in high school and college — the parties and hedonism of Spring Break. But research shows that binge drinking, such as that which takes place during Spring Break, can have dangerous consequences for young people's brains.

Consuming large amounts of alcohol at one time can lead to thinning of the cortex in the prefrontal lobe of the brain, a key part of the brain regulating attention, planning and decision making, processing emotion, and controlling impulses.

In a study last year, brain scans of young people aged 18 to 25 showed that consuming 4 or more drinks at one time for women and 5 or more drinks at one time for men led to thinning of the gray matter in young people's brains, especially in the prefrontal lobe

In addition, experts like Dr. Alicia Ann Kowalchuk of Harris County Hospital's Insight program (an alcohol and drug intervention program) say that because young people's brains are still developing through the age of 25, binge drinking may cause developmental delays in the prefrontal cortex. This kind of brain damage may lead to difficulty making healthy choices about alcohol and impulse control later as adults.

Another study in England found that binge drinking may have an effect on young people's prospective memory. When asked to remember a series of instructions, university students who regularly had 5-6 drinks at once, two or more times a week, recalled significantly fewer instructions on the memory test than their peers who were not binge drinkers. Although further research is needed, researchers speculate that binge drinking may interfere with teenagers' cognitive development.

Young people who engage in binge drinking are therefore putting themselves at risk in several ways. Not only do they expose themselves in the short term to risky behaviors such as unprotected sex, drinking and driving, drug use, and sometimes criminal behavior, but they also risk damaging their brain tissue in the long term, making them more likely to suffer from alcohol abuse and addiction later in life. They may also be compromising cognitive functions such as memory.

Dr. Kowalchuk urges parents to begin talking about drinking to their children at an early age, making it clear that drinking is not acceptable for underage teens, and highlighting the dangers of alcohol. Lenient drinking attitudes at home have been shown to lead to higher drinking rates in teens, because young people may believe that their parents implicitly approve their behavior.

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