Scientists from the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC) and University of Minho (Portugal) have studied the brain activity of young university students who drink excessively in Spain and have found changes in brain activity, which may indicate a delay in brain development and an early sign of brain damage.
Binge drinking or heavy drinking is extremely common among young people. Articles by the American Agency for Substance Abuse and Mental Health (SAMHSA) and the European Agency for the Study of Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) estimate that up to one-third of young Americans and Europeans drink heavily.
This compulsion is defined as drinking five or more drinks for men and four or more for women in a two-hour period, which according to the data is not much for a large percentage of college students.
In the last decade, several neuropsychological and neurofunctional studies seem to point out that these young people present a poor performance in some neuropsychological tasks, especially verbal memory and inhibitory control, as well as anomalies in the cerebral activity associated with these same processes in comparison with a control group of young people (with little or no alcohol consumption).
“Many studies have evaluated the effects of excessive alcohol consumption on young adults during different tasks involving attention or working memory,” explains Sinc Eduardo López-Canada, of the University of Minho in Portugal. “However, little is known about whether the brains of these binge drinkers (BDs) show differences when they are at rest and do not focus on a task,” he adds.
And this is what arises the current work, published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. López-Canada and the rest of the team recruited first-year students from the Galician university and asked them to complete a questionnaire about their consumption habits.
Scientists evaluated the electrical activity of students in various brain regions. “Young BDs had altered brain activity at rest compared to controls,” continues Lopez-Canada.
Thus, they presented significantly higher measurements of specific electrophysiological parameters, known as beta and theta oscillations, in both the right temporal lobe and the bilateral occipital cortex.
Most vulnerable teens
These results are congruent with previous studies that have found very similar alterations in the brains of chronic alcoholic adults. But it should be made clear that although these young people occasionally consumed alcohol in excess, they do not meet the criteria for alcoholism.
“Changes found may indicate decreased responsiveness to external stimuli and potential difficulties in processing information in young compulsive drinkers and may represent some of the earliest signs of alcohol-induced brain damage, says Lopez-Caneda.
Data from animal studies – essentially rodents – indicate that adolescent rats, even consuming the same amount of alcohol as adults, experience greater neurotoxicity (more neurons die) and less neurogenesis (less new neurons are born in the hippocampus, a key region for memory) than the adult rats.
Teenagers’ brains continue to develop, which means they may be more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol abuse. “Probably because his brain has not fully developed, especially regions such as the prefrontal cortex, one of the areas most affected by this consumption,” says the researcher.
The researchers stress that they need to do more studies to confirm if the characteristics they have observed in these young people are caused by their drinking and whether their brain development could be affected.
“It is important to delay the age of onset of alcohol consumption, which in Spain is between 12 and 13 years, since a negative relationship has been observed between the onset of consumption and this excessive consumption of alcohol (the lower the age at the one that starts to drink alcohol, the greater the probability of alcohol abuse once the maturity is reached), “affirms Lopez-Caneda.
“It would also be important for health and educational institutions to use these results to show young people that alcohol consumption, when performed intensively and regularly on weekends, can have significant negative effects on the brain level normal functioning, development during the adolescent period, induce worse performance in memory, etc.), “he concludes.
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