Reduced judgment and increased participation in risky behavior are commonly seen in teenagers who binge on alcohol. Now, there is evidence suggesting that such behavior may also affect brain development and information processing, especially for teen girls, according to study findings published today in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
The research involved 95 teenagers recruited from public schools in the San Diego area, including 40 binge drinkers and 55 controls. Binge drinking was defined as having 4 or more drinks (for teen girls) and 5 or more (for teen boys) on at least 1 occasion in the 3 months prior to the study; the controls had fewer than 3 drinks total during the prior 3 months. As part of the study, the teens performed a spatial working memory task while the researchers observed brain activation using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Spatial working memory is the ability to perceive the space around you and then remember and work with that information, which could affect such tasks as driving, sports, and using a map.
The researchers found 8 regions of the brain affected to varying degrees based on drinking status and the ability to perform the spatial working memory task. There were no differences in the ability to perform the memory task between bingers and the control group. But teen girls who binged showed less activation in all 8 brain regions than did teen girls in the control group, differences in brain activity that were linked to worse performance on other measures of attention and working memory ability, said Susan F. Tapert, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the study authors, in a written statement. In contrast, the teen boys who binged demonstrated increased activation in 4 of the 8 regions compared with teen boys in the control group.
The researchers suggested that there are several potential reasons why binge drinking appeared to affect teen girls more than teen boys. First, brain development tends to occur 2 years earlier in girls than boys. In addition, there are important hormonal differences, and teen girls also have slower metabolism rates, higher body fat ratios, and lower body weights than teen boys.
“Heavy alcohol use could interrupt normal brain cell growth during adolescence, particularly in these frontal brain regions, which could interfere with teens’ ability to perform in school and sports, and could have long-lasting effects, even months after the teen uses,” noted Tapert.