Medliorate

Improving medical students

Alcohol & Cognition – Binge Drinking Compromises Learning Abilities

Posted by medliorator on December 31, 2007

By psychiatrist Paul Steinberg

The more we have binged — and the younger we have started to binge — the more we experience significant, though often subtle, effects on the brain and cognition.

 

evidence for the impact of frequent binge-drinking comes from some simple but elegant studies done on lab rats by Fulton T. Crews and his former student Jennifer Obernier. Dr. Crews, the director of the University of North Carolina Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, and Dr. Obernier have shown that after a longstanding abstinence following heavy binge-drinking, adult rats can learn effectively — but they cannot relearn.

 

When put into a tub of water and forced to continue swimming until they find a platform on which to stand, the sober former binge-drinking rats and the normal control rats (who had never been exposed to alcohol) learned how to find the platform equally well. But when the experimenters abruptly moved the platform, the… rats without previous exposure to alcohol, after some brief circling, were able to find the new location. The former binge-drinking rats, however, were unable to find the new platform; they became confused and kept circling the site of the old platform.

 

On a microscopic level, Dr. Crews has shown that heavy binge-drinking in rats diminishes the genesis of nerve cells, shrinks the development of the branchlike connections between brain cells and contributes to neuronal cell death. The binges activate an inflammatory response in rat brains rather than a pure regrowth of normal neuronal cells. Even after longstanding sobriety this inflammatory response translates into a tendency to stay the course, a diminished capacity for relearning and maladaptive decision-making.

 

Studies have also shown that binge drinking clearly damages the adolescent brain more than the adult brain. The forebrain — specifically the orbitofrontal cortex, which uses associative information to envision future outcomes — can be significantly damaged by binge drinking. Indeed, heavy drinking in early or middle adolescence, with this consequent cortical damage, can lead to diminished control over cravings for alcohol and to poor decision-making. One can easily fail to recognize the ultimate consequences of one’s actions.

 

exercise has been shown to stimulate the regrowth and development of normal neural tissue in former alcohol-drinking mice. In fact, this neurogenesis was greater in the exercising former drinking mice than that induced by exercise in the control group that had never been exposed to alcohol.

 

some possible resolutions for the New Year:
-Stop after one or two drinks. Studies of the Mediterranean diet have shown that one or two drinks on a consistent basis leads to a longer life than pure teetotaling.
-If you have binged excessively when younger, follow it up with some regular exercise. Get those brain cells regenerated.

The Hangover That Lasts [NYT]

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