Binge Drinking Matters—to Your Brain

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Series of MRI Scans of the Brain

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.

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.


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