A new study on rodents shows that binge drinking reduces the ability to control your alcohol intake. Researchers at Scripps University found that rats who binge drank occasionally for several months showed signs of cognitive impairments that were similar to those of long time alcoholics.
Researchers found a small group of neurons in the rats brain that usually help in rational decision making had been changed by the binging. These Neurons were highly stimulated in the periods between binges. The more active these neurons were, the more the rats drank when they had access to alcohol.
This alteration of the brain happens very quickly. The rats were only exposed to alcohol for a few months and they only had the occasional opportunity to binge. If these same findings hold true in humans they could explain a lot about how binge drinking and alcoholism begin.
“We suspect that this very early adaptation of the brain to intermittent alcohol use helps drive the transition from ordinary social drinking to binge drinking and dependence,” said Olivier George, PhD, senior staff scientist at TSRI and lead author of the study.
This study backs up the idea that responsible drinking should never include binging. It is much healthier to consume a small amount every day than drink to excess even on occasion.
This is because once alcohol over stimulates the neurons, it produces excess activity in the brains stress related circuits and weakens the prefrontal executive control circuits that moderate emotion and impulsive behaviour. That means even a few episodes of binge drinking can make a person less able to make rational decisions about their drinking.
In the case of the rats, they started out as moderate drinkers but soon they began drinking more than the rats that had 24/7 access to alcohol.
“It’s like a lot of things in life that the brain perceives as good—if it loses access to it, you feel bad, you get into a negative emotional state, say a little bit frustrated, and so you take more the next time you have access,” said Dr. George.
While this research is important for everyone, it is especially concerning for teens and young adults who choose to binge drink. “This process would be of particular concern in adolescents and young adults, in whom the prefrontal cortex isn’t even fully developed,” Dr. Koob said.
If this area of the brain is damaged before it has had the chance to develop, there could be serious and lifelong consequences.