Binge drinking linked to long-term brain changes

Binge drinking during teenage years can have long-term effects on brain function.

The teenage brain is still developing, and researchers from University of Massachusetts Amherst have published a study that found excessive alcohol consumption can change the brain’s myelin – the protective coating around nerve fibers – resulting in cognitive damage years later.

Researchers tested the effects of alcohol in male rats by having them drink sweetened alcohol for two weeks. The control group only had sweetened water. The sweetener made the alcohol tasty for rats, and they could request the beverage at any point by pressing a lever that released more of it.

After the study period, the researchers analyzed the rat brains, particularly the myelin. Compared to the control group, the rats that drank the alcohol had decreased myelin in the prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain crucial for decision making and controlling emotion. The reduction in myelin continued even months later when the rats were adults.

They also discovered that when the rats were exposed to alcohol again in adulthood, the results were comparable to alcohol consumption in their younger years. Researchers believe this may be because the brain develops a hypersensitivity to alcohol.

The rats also underwent a memory test as adults to see how well they retained information on a short-term basis. The rats that consumed alcohol in their teenage years performed worse on the test than those who drank only water.

Published in The Journal of Neuroscience, these findings could help showcase how alcohol causes structural damage to the brain and impairs memory and cognitive function years later.

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