How Binge Drinking Effects Memory in College Students

Binge drinking involves drinking a lot of alcohol in a short time. This is a common phenomenon in university students of an age when parts of the brain undergo restructuring. Binge drinking can harm such learning and memory-related areas as the hippocampus in the mammalian brain. Using 122 university students, this study attempts to find if binge drinking affects declarative memory, the personal memory for names and events. The results found that binge drinkers, irrespective of their gender seem to have a bad recall for words but not for photos.

Binge drinking is defined as drinking five (four, in the case of women) or more alcoholic drinks within two hours, at least once in two to four weeks. This is very common during the teenage years — a time when important developments occur in the brain, especially in the hippocampus, the part that governs memory and learning. “Animal studies with rats have demonstrated that the adolescent brain is more vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol than is the adult brain.” Binge drinking studies in adolescent rats show cell-death in the brain and long-lasting problems with learning and memory. It is hypothesized that “declarative memory,” which allows us to remember specific things, events and names, will be affected in humans with binge drinking habits. The study also tests if the effects of binge drinking differ between sexes.

* An anonymous survey regarding the age at which alcoholic drinking began, the frequency and the speed of drinking was used to create two groups of university students: binge drinkers and non-binge drinkers.
* The possible participants were interviewed for family and medical history and other addictions that might confuse the results.  From these 62 binge drinkers and 60 non-binge drinkers participants were selected. Their intellectual levels were measured on the basis of a vocabulary test.
* A standardized test for remembering a list of words after different intervals and different interfering tasks was conducted. Another test required recall of exact details, wording etc. from two stories.
* A visual memory test involved remembering details from four photographs of family members.

* The sex of the participants did not affect any symptoms of binge drinking, although female students scored better in every test of memory than did male students.
* Binge drinkers remembered fewer words in the verbal recall test, and were more affected by distractions. Also, their memory for information in the stories was weaker than that of non-binge drinkers.
* Visual memory does not seem to be affected by binge drinking.

Shortcomings/Next steps
Though socio-economic familial backgrounds, intellectual capacities, addiction to cannabis etc. do not seem to affect the data on binge drinking, there is a need to search for risk factors affecting binge drinking. Effects of binge drinking on academic performance and adjusting into the society also need to be tested. The study may have excluded very heavy drinkers because of the criteria used for selection.

Binge drinkers have a weaker verbal memory than non-binge drinkers. Memory is more detailed and lasts longer for non-binge drinkers, who are also less susceptible to distractions. Remembering a story, which requires an organized or sequential recall of events, is harder for binge drinkers. Fighting distractions and remembering words are both processes that “depend on the integrity of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which are maturing during adolescence and have been shown to be vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol.” Women were not found to be more susceptible to memory-related symptoms caused by binge drinking. It remains to be seen if binge drinking affects academic performance.

For More Information:
Binge Drinking and Declarative Memory in University Students

Publication Journal: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, August 2011
By Mari´a Parada; Montserrat Corral; Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

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