Teen Binge Drinking Can Have Lasting Impacts on Memory

Binge drinking physically changes the brain. 

Just as Americans prepped for July barbecues, scientists at Columbia University dropped a sobering piece of news about the effects of binge drinking. Especially for teens, it can have a lasting and dangerous impact on memory.

This summer, Sarah Sloat reported on a paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience that investigated how binge drinking fundamentally altered the activity of neurons in the prefrontal cortex — an area of the brain where short-term and working memories dwell. In the study, anesthesiologists Michael Salling, Ph.D., and Neil Harrison, Ph.D., found that mice who chose to binge drink ended up dampening the activity of neurons in that crucial brain region, making it harder for the cells to communicate with one another.

This is #17 on Inverse‘s 25 Most Surprising Human Discoveries Made in 2018..

This spells bad news for human teens who binge drink because their prefrontal cortex already isn’t entirely online until their 20s, noted Salling. Messing with the neurons before they’re completely done developing could lead to longer-term memory issues as they age:

Alcohol, whiskey

“These findings may help explain why human adolescent binge drinkers have memory problems,” said Salling when the paper was first released.

Although this study wasn’t done on humans, the researchers took care to create as organic a binge drinking scenario as possible. Their mice were essentially exposed to the lab-animal version of a loaded frat house — they were offered endless booze every other day and given a choice to indulge or not indulge. This is actually fairly different from more traditional alcohol studies involving mice. In many cases, they’re injected with alcohol or forced to inhale a vaporized version.

By giving the mice a choice, the authors say that they were able to better replicate how most humans engage with alcohol. Some were cautious, while others dove right in, a behavior this team refers to as “front-loading” which has been replicated in humans. When the researchers dissected the brains of the binge-drinking mice, they found that the neurons in their prefrontal cortices were harder to excite because binge drinking altered the activity of channels on those cells that allow charged molecules to flow in and out. Overall, the alteration produced low levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex, which these researchers also found was associated with “working memory deficits.”

Given that the average binge drinker in America consumed 470 drinks in 2015, this research is probably a pressing concern to scientists who study binge drinking — or anyone who is even remotely concerned about keeping memory sharp.

As 2018 winds down, Inverse is highlighting 25 surprising things we learned about humans this year. These stories told us weird stuff about our bodies and brains, uncovered insights into our social lives, and illuminated why we’re such complicated, wonderful, and weird animals. This story was #17. Read the original story here.