Most of us have been to a college party and had too much to drink. But drinking too much at one time may actually affect our brain function and memory. Binge drinking is the consumption of large quantities of alcohol in one sitting. Animal studies have shown this kind of pattern may cause damage to the hippocampus, a region of the brain that governs learning and memory. As adolescents’ brains are still growing and developing, they may be particularly susceptible to the effects of alcohol. A study by the Research Society on Alcoholism examined the effect of binge drinking in university students’ declarative memory, a type of long-term memory in humans that refers to memories that can be consciously recalled, such as facts or events.
Of the 122 male and female participants (between 18 and 20 years of age), 62 were binge drinkers (32 men, 30 women) and 60 were non-binge drinkers (31 men, 29 women). The participants listened to stories and looked at pictures and were then tested on their verbal declarative memory and visual declarative memory.
Binge drinkers remembered fewer words in the verbal recall tests, regardless of sex. In addition, their memory for information in the stories was weaker than that of non-binge drinkers. Non-binge drinkers had more organized and detailed memories and were also less susceptible to distractions. Fighting distraction and a good memory are both dependent on healthy functioning in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex areas of the brain. Since these areas are maturing during adolescence, they are particularly vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol. Further studies may shed more light on this relationship and how the effects of alcohol on the brain vary between the sexes.
While binge drinking is not good for anyone, it may be especially harmful to adolescents — and their brains.