It’s hardly news that teen alcohol abuse is a dangerous behavior. But new research has provided greater insights into the very real (and possibly irreversible) damage that can be inflicted on the brains adolescents and teenagers who engage in binge drinking.
What Is Binge Drinking?
For men, the standard definition of binge drinking is consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in one session. For women, the threshold for binge drinking is four or more alcoholic drinks in one session.
A drinking binge can occur in less than an hour, or can extend for many days. The common features among binge drinking experiences of varying lengths are the overconsumption of alcohol in one session, and the intention to drink for the purpose of becoming intoxicated.
Among adolescents and teenagers, binge drinking (and drinking solely for the purpose of becoming intoxicated) are becoming unfortunately more common, and pose very serious health risks.
Teen Binge Drinking Research
Several studies have shown that teens who binge drink in high school are much more likely to continue to binge drink in college. Even though alcohol awareness events have become more prevalent on college campuses, binge drinking among college students remains common.
In addition to the more obvious dangers, binge drinking during college is associated with mental health disorders such as compulsiveness, depression, anxiety or early deviant behavior.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, students who frequently engage in binge drinking were eight times more likely than non-binge drinkers to miss a class, fall behind in schoolwork, get hurt or injured and damage property.
Common symptoms of binge drinking include vomiting, delirium, convulsions, clammy and bluish skin and slow, and irregular breathing.
Teens, Binge Drinking and Brain Damage
Because teens’ brains are not yet fully developed, dangerous behaviors such as binge drinking are more likely to inflict lasting damage than are similar behaviors by adults.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Diego revealed differences in the white matter or nerve cells of the brains of teens who binge drink as infrequently as once or twice a month.
The UCSD researchers compared brain scans of teens who engaged in binge drinking and those who don’t.
In teens who were binge drinkers, brain scans showed abnormalities – discernable “dings” in the white matter of the brains of those teens. It’s not yet known if this damage is reversible
In girls, the changes to the brain corresponded to lower scores on tests measuring spatial function – skills associated with math and engineering disciplines. In boys, the changes corresponded to lower attention spans.
Studies Document Effects of Teen Binge Drinking
The scientist in charge of the study quantified the “before” and “after” capabilities as revealing a deficit of about 10%, or, as she said, the difference between scoring an A and a B.
The functioning of the hippocampus in the forebrain was also studied, an area which regulates memory and emotion. In this study, binge drinking was associated with loss of memory function.
These teens scored lower on verbal material than teens who didn’t binge drink. Similar to the effects on white matter of the brain, it’s unknown whether this loss of brain function is reversible.