How Binge Drinking Affects Attention and Memory

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If you are 25 years or younger and you drink to excess even once a week, your brain may exhibit some deficits as a result of your binge drinking. Your ability to pay attention and use your visual working memory could be compromised, according to researchers.

Binge drinking is defined as drinking five or more standard alcohol drinks for males, and four or more for females within a two-hour interval. In the United States, up to 45 percent of college students report binge drinking or heavy drinking episodes at least once a week.

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Much of your brain develops early in life, but some regions of the brain continue to develop until age 25. Researchers say it is those very regions that are affected most by heavy episodic drinking.

Heavy Drinking Pattern Affects Brain

That intense pattern of drinking can cause more damage to your brain than consuming the same about of alcohol over a longer period. In fact, these heavy drinking episodes followed by "morning after" hangovers mimic the pattern usually observed in chronic alcoholics in their cycles of abuse and detoxification, researchers say.

Because some functions of the brain continue to develop and mature until age 25, damage to the brain by binge drinking before age 25 could have more severe long-term effects.

The regions of the brain that develop late may be the most vulnerable, according to Alberto Crego, a doctoral student at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain.

Binge Drinkers, but Not Alcoholics

Crego and his colleagues are the latest scientists to find negative consequences of binge-type drinking. They studied 95 first-year Spanish college students, ages 18 to 20. Of the 95, there were 42 who were binge drinkers and 53 "control" students who did not drink or were light drinkers.

All of the students in the study were considered otherwise healthy. In other words, none of the students were diagnosed with an alcohol-use disorder, alcohol dependence or any other alcohol-related disorders.

Problems With Working Memory

The researchers used event-related electrophysiological brain response (ERP) technique to measure the students' brain response to a visual working memory task. The study found:

  • Students who were binge drinkers displayed anomalies during execution of the task, even when they correctly executed the task.
  • Binge drinkers required greater attentional processing during the task to finish it correctly.
  • The binge drinking students had difficulties differentiating between relevant and irrelevant stimuli.
  • Binge drinking students displayed less efficiency in distributing attentional and working memory resources between the different information presented during the task.

Alterations in the Brain

The authors of the study concluded that healthy adolescents and young people who binge drink—even only once or twice a week, and who do not display chronic alcohol consumption or alcohol dependence, "may suffer alterations at the electrophysiological level in attentional and working memory processing."

The Spanish study is another in a long list of research that shows that binge-type drinking is harmful and can have long-term consequences. No matter which type of binge drinker you are, your health will benefit by changing your drinking pattern.

Attention and memory problems are not the only negative effect that binge drinkers can experience. There are many other health problems associated with binge drinking, including a cluster of metabolic risk factors, impaired decision-making, verbal learning problems, and others.

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  • Crego A, Holguín SR, Parada M, Mota N, Corral M, Cadaveira F. Binge Drinking Affects Attentional and Visual Working Memory Processing in Young University Students. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 2009;33(11):1870-1879. doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.2009.01025.x.