Adolescent binge drinking can damage spatial working memory

August, 2011
  • This study finds that adolescent females are particularly vulnerable to the effects of binge drinking, and points to specific changes in brain activation patterns seen in binge drinkers.

Binge drinking occurs most frequently among young people, and there has been concern that consequences will be especially severe if the brain is still developing, as it is in adolescence. Because of the fact that it is only some parts of the brain — most crucially the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus — that are still developing, it makes sense that only some functions will be affected.

I recently reported on a finding that binge drinking university students, performed more poorly on tests of verbal memory, but not on a test of visual memory. A new study looks at another function: spatial working memory. This task involves the hippocampus, and animal research has indicated that this region may be especially vulnerable to binge drinking. Spatial working memory is involved in such activities as driving, figural reasoning, sports, and navigation.

The study involved 95 adolescents (aged 16-19) from San Diego-area public schools: 40 binge drinking (27 males, 13 females) and 55 control (31 males, 24 females). Brain scans while performing a spatial working memory task revealed that there were significant gender differences in brain activation patterns for those who engaged in binge drinking. Specifically, in eight regions spanning the frontal cortex, anterior cingulate, temporal cortex, and cerebellum, female binge drinkers showed less activation than female controls, while male bingers exhibited greater activation than male controls. For female binge drinkers, less activation was associated with poorer sustained attention and working memory performances, while for male binge drinkers, greater activation was linked to better spatial performance.

The differences between male binge drinkers and controls were smaller than that seen in the female groups, suggesting that female teens may be particularly vulnerable. This is not the first study to find a gender difference in the brains’ response to excess alcohol. In this case it may have to do, at least partly, with differences in maturity — female brains mature earlier than males’.

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