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Drugs & Health Blog

Binge Drinking Matters—to Your Brain

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This figure from Dr. Tapert's paper shows a series of MRI scans of a human brain. The scans are like slices through a brain from bottom (top left) to top (bottom right), moving across the rows from left to right. The red dots mark specific places in the brain's white matter where Dr. Tapert's team saw differences between teens who binge drink and those who don't.

Sara Bellum

I'm sure you've heard that abusing alcohol hurts your health. But how many years of drinking do you think it takes to visibly affect your brain? Ten years? Twenty?

Turns out that it doesn't take that long at all—in fact, scientists can already see changes in the brains of teenagers who drink.

Blocking the Signals

In a new research study, Professor Susan Tapert of the University of California at San Diego used an imaging machine called an MRI to scan the brains of teens who binge drink—defined as drinking 4 or 5 (or more) drinks in a couple of hours. Dr. Tapert found that the "white matter" in their brains—the part that transmits signals, like a TV cable or a computer USB cord—was abnormal compared with the white matter of teens who don't binge drink. Transmitting signals is a big part of what the brain does, so affecting the white matter in this way could also affect a person's thinking, learning, and memory.

The really scary part is that these teens weren't alcoholics, and they didn't drink every day. All they did (to be considered "binge drinkers") was drink at least four (for women) or five (for men) drinks in one sitting, at least one time during the previous three months.

How could it be possible for just a few sessions of heavy drinking to affect the white matter of the brain? Well, science has shown that alcohol can poison brain cells and alter the brain's white matter in adult alcoholics. Dr. Tapert thinks that teenagers' brains are even more susceptible this way. She says, "because the brain is still developing during adolescence, there has been concern that it may be more vulnerable to high doses of alcohol."

Cause or Effect?

Many questions still remain, including how long it takes before these changes occur, and how much they affect the brain's different functions. To figure this out, scientists would have to look at the binge drinkers' brains before and after they started drinking. That way, they can tell if the differences might have already been there before the teens started drinking. It's possible that having abnormal white matter in the brain somehow increases the chance of being a binge drinker. In order to answer that question, Dr. Tapert says they need to do longer studies that follow teens' brain growth over time.

The bottom line? If you're a teen, drinking to the point of getting drunk could damage the white matter of your brain—even if you do it only once in a while.

Find out more through the following resources:

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


Hi ! A properly functioning brain and nervous system is important for physical, mental, and emotional health, and white matter integrity is essential for the efficient relay of information within the brain, spinal cord, and the rest of the body. Teens who binge drink may be compromising the integrity of the white matter in the brain and this can affect thinking and memory, even lowering school performance. With Regards Amrita [link removed, per guidelines]

Given that liars are more likely to have high levels of white matter ("Prefrontal white matter in pathological liars" The British Journal of Psychiatry (2005) 187: 320-325), isn't it possible that the teens with higher white matter who *said* they didn't binge drink were BSing the researchers?

Hey Becca,
Yes, it is possible in any study that participants will not be completely honest with the researchers; however, researchers are aware of this possibility and design their studies to take that into account--so they can get the most accurate results possible. Thanks for your question.

Is addiction a disease or a human failure? Should addiction be funded and treated as a disease? Become a fan to share your thoughts and see what others are saying. [link removed; page does not exist]

Thanks for your comment, Phil. To answer your question, addiction is not a human failure or a moral shortcoming. It is a disease and should be treated, so that those who suffer from it can recover and go on to lead normal lives. Research shows that drug abuse and addiction lead to long-term changes in the brain, which cause addicted drug users to lose the ability to control their drug use. This compulsive drug seeking and use despite the often devastating consequences is what makes drug addiction a disease. Although there is no cure for drug addiction, it is treatable, and addicted people can recover. Treatments can include medications along with programs of behavior change that slowly retrain the brain. For more, see

How can you explain to me that it is socially acceptable and legal to drink alcohol a substance that kills thousands, when it is not socially acceptable and illegal to smoke marijuana a substance thats never killed and isn't addictive?

Hi John, actually research shows that marijuana is the main illegal drug detected in those who are killed in car crashes. Studies conducted in several different locations found that up to 14 percent (or about 1 in 7) drivers who were injured or died in traffic accidents tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Someone who's been smoking pot or doing other drugs has slower reflexes and so can’t respond as well in an emergency. See this InfoFact sheet on Drugged Driving for more...

I think that it is very wrong how bottle shops and pubs are allowed to advertise alcohol. A drug that can do so much harm should at least be treated the same way as tobacco products. What do you think?

The health dangers of alcohol are well-known, even if not talked about as much as tobacco. Here’s what the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says:

Alcohol is a powerful drug that slows down the body and mind. It impairs coordination; slows reaction time; and impairs vision, clear thinking, and judgment.

Beer and wine are not “safer” than hard liquor. A 12-ounce can of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, and 1.5 ounces of hard liquor all contain the same amount of alcohol and have the same effects on the body and mind.

On average, it takes 2 to 3 hours for a single drink to leave a person’s system. Nothing can speed up this process, including drinking coffee, taking a cold shower, or “walking it off.”

People tend to be very bad at judging how seriously alcohol has affected them. That means many individuals who drive after drinking think they can control a car—but actually cannot.

Anyone can develop a serious alcohol problem, including a teenager. Check out for more info. --SBB

Teens alcohol abuse is a serious concern and problem for parents as well as for society, as the growth and development of a country depends on its productive youth. Apart from serious health effects of binge drinking, accompanied there are other serious issues inter-related like, drinking and driving, sexual assault, suicidal risk, high risk sex etc. check in detail here. [Link removed; page does not exist]

It is so important to find the right treatment program for your teen if they are struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction. There are a number of fine facilities in California that treat the individual and his or her family during this challenging time.

The Drug Abuse Treatment Facility Locator on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration's webpage offers a selection of treatment centers in CA and nationwide.

I find the information very encouraging here, however I myself have been a binge drinker of heavy alcohol for a good year and a half. Although I do admit noticing changes in wit, and retension of information, I have to say that the affects of alcohol when recognized for what they truely are, are not as harmful as made out to be. I've operated an automobile on numerous occasions with more than 4 shots of whiskey in me. I realize this is a personal account and does not refelct the average person's ability or effort to operate a vehicle under the influence, but i find that a stern amount of will power among even the most intoxicated accounts i have ever induced, will be controlable. I think the real problem with alcohol is that when intoxicated people tend to ease off of their better judgment given the sense of frivolity is around. I'm just speaking from accounts of my own experience. I myself have no trouble functioning while under the influence of 5-10 shots, at least never dangerously so. I realize proloning such activites will ultimatley lead to a plumit of cognitive abilities in a person and I wouldn't advice following in my steps. I'm tryin to live a sober life og happiness and find that it is perhaps easier to live in such a manner opposed to masking old haunting problems with the haze of the drink. I am 140 pounds 5'5". So you can see from those stats that I don't exactly carry a natural resistance to alcohol, incase the curiosity had crossed anyone'es mind. Anyway thanks for the read.

Hey Honestjoe, it seems from what you say that you have noticed some effects of your binge drinking on how your brain works, but you may be less aware of how your judgment and decision-making are affected. So although you may think you can use willpower to control your driving after binge drinking, you may not be able to deal with things that require you to react quickly, so that you don't run into someone or something. You’ve been really lucky so far that you haven’t hurt yourself or anyone else, or gotten arrested. But I do hope you get to the sobriety and happiness you’re looking for, and that you will not risk your life or others’ lives by drinking and driving from now on.

so what do thos red dots meen? is that the alcohol effects that are happining to your brain?

@sterling--the red dots mark the places where this researcher saw differences in the brain's white matter between teens who binge drink and those who don't. Because younger brains are still developing, they may be more vulnerable to high doses of alcohol--but of course we need more research to understand what the abnormal white matter means to brain functioning, like thinking, learning, memory, etc.

I hated this paragraph it was no help at alll

hi i dont get what you are saying

@hi--Yeah, it's a lil' complicated...I guess the bottom line of this study is that scientists found abnormal white matter in the brains of teens who binge drink (drink a lot of alcohol at one time). Affecting the white matter in this way could also affect thinking, learning, and memory. So binge driinking = not good for your brain. Hope that helps.

Hey very nice blog!!....I'm an instant fan, I have bookmarked you and I'll be checking back on a regular....See ya :)

This is a really important post. The brain is just one of the many crucial functions that gets impaired when a young person engages in binge drinking. We see far too many young people come through our alcohol rehab program to let things like this go unsaid much longer. Thank you for continuing to provide parents with accurate, easy to understand information!

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this article prooves that i am so f----d its not even cool, after being depressed for two years some stressful events pulled me deeper into te hole, i started drinking everyday, shots of hard liquor everyday for two months, not to metion i WAS bingeing, i now notice when i got write essays or pappers i cannot think at all, i cant write like i use to so i can say from experience that alcohal f's with ur brain, i also use to be addicted to pot during the 2 years but have definitly cooled down( got to the point where i was smoking 14 gams a week!) and i can definitly say i was addicted, thats why i think addiction is a human failure and the deeper in the hole u go the harder it is to come out of because of withdral, stress and other stuff but basically i think addiction is all in the mind, when i realized how out of control i was , though it was kinda tough i kicked the pot addiction easily addiction is all in the mind. to fight addiction, for me atleast all u have to do is fight one thought in your brain, when u tell urself " i want to get high" all u tell urself is no u dont, its as simple as fighting that one thought , it makes or breaks ur decision.

another thing i was wondering was is it posible to get back the cells lost from alcohal, i am 4 days clean of all drugs, iknow its not much of an accomplishment specially because i keep going in and out of doing drugs(including alcohal) the most ive lasted was 2 months so we will see how long this lasts, im defs topping liquor seeing as how ive experienced first hand the effects of it, i just need to know is there any way to recover, im sure the only answer is time..... gotta wait out the withdrawal symptoms......... im learning the hard way my brain is the most important part of my body and i need to start taking care of it i i wanna start getting my marks in skool back,....... ADDICTION IS ALL IN THE MIND, THEREFORE, TO ME IT IS A HUMAN FAILURE.

@joet--addiction is in the brain, too. That is, it changes your brain circuitry so that compulsive behaviors--that drive you to use despite the consequences--take over any kind of impulse control. Yes, your brain can recover with abstinence, and treatment can teach you ways to avoid relapse triggers and cope with the cues. Medications have also helped a lot of people. Calling addiction a "human failure" only adds to the stigma of it, and keeps people from seeking the help they need (and deserve).

Alcohol is a powerful drug that slows down the body and mind. It impairs coordination; slows reaction time; and impairs vision, clear thinking, and judgment.
I think the real problem with alcohol is that when intoxicated people tend to ease off of their better judgment given the sense of frivolity is around.

Yeah, it’s a lil’ complicated…I guess the bottom line of this study is that scientists found abnormal white matter in the brains of teens who binge drink (drink a lot of alcohol at one time)

so all this talk about how damaging alcohol is and it doesnt even result in a fraction of the damage that cigarettes cause. yet cigarettes are much more readily available then alcohol and can even be bought at a younger age. hmmmm.....

Big issue in the UK. Wasn't aware it was so much in the states...

It's the underlying causes that are interesting - why do some cultures binge, and others drink a LOT, but in moderation?

Interesting point on the advertising issue...

Support and eduction - that's what young people really need...

Agree with Zen. & moderation

Drinking is not only damages the brain but causes degradation in character and basic body functioning.

Great post!

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Alternate alcoholic drinks with soft drinks, and drink water before you go out so that you are less thirsty.

Ow. The human brain!

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Excellent work, Nice Design [commercial link removed, per guidelines]

Very shocking stuff. I didn't start drinking until I turned 18 (legal drinking age). Sometimes I go a few months without drinking but other months I binge drink more than once. When I do binge drink, I usually consume somewhere in the range of 12-15 shots. Is this enough to cause permanent brain damage?

@RMIVUXGY Sara Bellum was able to go back to the lead author of the 2009 study on binge drinking, to get her view on your question of how much is too much. Dr. Susan Tapert, Acting Chief of Psychology Service, VA San Diego Health Care System and Professor of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, responded:

"It's always hard to know with 100% certainty what causes what in the human brain, but available information from studies with animals and with people suggests that drinking to the point where you feel intoxicated (such as 4 or more drinks ) could be enough to produce some harm to brain cells and other supporting structures in the brain. In addition, some evidence suggests that doing this when the brain is still developing (that is, through the teens and even 20s), the important maturation that is supposed to happen gets thwarted. In addition, the risk for having physical accidents, poor judgment, and long-term problems is much higher when people drink to this level. For these reasons, it is strongly recommended that you not drink to this level and consider drinking alcohol at a much lower level, and consider stopping the use of alcohol altogether."

If your teen is an alcohol drinker, talk to him/her or find a solution or engage him/her in a program. Maybe he/she has a family problem.

It's pretty scary what's behind the wheel nowadays: DUI of not just alcohol, but pills and other motor skills inhibiting chemicals. [commercial link removed, per guidelines]

its scary!:(,as a i drink occasionally ,i'm going to rethink this matter

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Binge drinking can be dangerous no matter what your age, but for teens, the risks increase. Since the teenage brain is still growing and developing, it is more easily damaged by large amounts of alcohol; binge drinking can be the perfect way to destroy developing brain cells.

Almost two-thirds of teens admit to binge drinking. That’s two out of every three adolescents who is downing 5 or more drinks in a row (the definition of binge drinking in the US ). Many people assume that binge drinking means drinking over a long period of time, but it also refers to tossing back several drinks in a short amount of time.

Teens who binge drink tend to have a lot of problems due to the amount of alcohol in their system. Here are some of the more common issues binge drinkers face:

Lack of concentration in school: This often leads to bad grades or even dropping out, something that will affect the quality of jobs a person can get and their perception of the world.

Loss of friends: Alcohol binges can drastically change someone’s personality and their friends will drift away. We all need support and a real friend is far more useful than a bottle of tequila.

Memory loss and blackouts: This is quite common during drinking episodes, but it can happen afterwards too, when the person is sober.

Lack of judgment: Unfortunately, many teens that are binge drinking make other bad decisions, like getting behind the wheel of a car or sleeping with someone without protection. In best case scenarios, they have an embarrassing story to live down, worst case, they end up dead. Motor vehicle crashes are the number one killer for ages 15-20 and the number of fatal crashes caused by drunk driving is double for this age group than for those over 21.

Trouble with the law: Underage drinking can not only cause personal problems, it can also get teens in trouble with the police. Drinking and driving can get your license suspended or worse.

Suicide: Drinking boosts the suicide rate nearly 3 times by interacting with existing conditions like depression and making them worse . . . so much so that the teen feels the only way out is to kill himself.

Alcohol poisoning: Not everyone who binge drinks gets alcohol poisoning, but it affects teens more than anyone else. Alcohol is rapidly absorbed through the stomach lining and drinking too much too fast can be fatal as many have found out.

While binge drinking isn’t a good idea at any time, there are certain circumstances where it is far more lethal. It’s easy to get caught up in chugging beer at a party or taking a dare from a friend to down an entire bottle of schnapps, but these are exactly what kill teen binge drinkers every year.

Most teens who die from an alcohol overdose are labeled as an accidental death or a choking victim (usually on their own vomit), but the truth is far worse. They drank so much alcohol that it actually stopped their organs from working and they passed out and died. Many of them received absolutely no help because their friends assumed it was normal to pass out, when in reality, they were slowly dying.

It’s important to get help if you suspect someone is binge drinking. It could save their life. [commercial link removed, per guidelines]

The peolpe who bing drink shouldn't be drinking because it can make you die. and alochol can be use as a comfort zone for peolpe. if peolpe want to live much longer they need to stop bing drking. and it is really important to help that person who is bing drinking and it wont effect the brian system.

I am 19 and first drank at 15. In these years, I've only binge drank about 15-20 times, though I have smoked weed on about 20-25 occasions as well. The week or so after being intoxicated I would feel my academic performance decline, but after a couple weeks it would feel "normal" again. (I am a straight A student and generally do really well in school). However, even during periods of sobriety, I have random days/times where I feel just as dumb as the couple days after being drunk/high (and I don't believe I've ever had that happen before I started drinking/smoking). Could that from the built up effects of alcohol and marijuana in my brain? If so, is this typical? Also, and this is a somewhat subjective question, what is the typical recovery time after drinking (say about 5 drinks), where people feel "back to normal"?

@Airfresh It’s good that you’re noticing how these substances are affecting you – even several days after you drink. Both alcohol and marijuana affect the brain immediately. Recovery time varies from person to person: some appear to recover rather quickly others--not so much. Recovery depends on many factors including age, history of use, amount consumed, genetics, physiology, etc. It is important to mention that, as a teen your brain is growing new connections and changing all the time; in fact these critical changes continue well into your 20s. Since young people also tend to be more resilient, so although alcohol or marijuana will alter your brain, you can recover relatively quickly. Still, there’s a lot we don’t know about how the brain responds to alcohol and marijuana. We do know that the younger you take up drugs or alcohol, the more likely it is that substance abuse will turn into a problem later on.

this website could surely be the very best in the market place. Exceptional blog! [commercial link removed, per guidelines]

How many people a year die from using alcohol?

The CDC is a really good source for that information. In 2011, preliminary data shows that 26,256 died from alcohol-induced deaths, and another 16,634 died from alcoholic liver disease. Check out the CDC’s National Vital Statistics Reports at

Haven't there been more current and longer studies done in the time lapse since 2009 when this came out? to reveal more? Thank you.
Can your brain heal from such effects ?
brain matter

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