Understanding the Neuroscience of Binge Drinking

Adolescents who start drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become adult alcoholics than those who start to drink as older teens. (Image: rebcenter-moscow via Pixabay)

Binge drinking is never healthy, but the behavior brings the greatest risks for young adolescents. At Columbia, researchers are taking a different tack in studying binge drinking in mice to learn why teenagers suffer the greatest consequences.

Adolescents who start drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become adult alcoholics than those who start to drink as older teens. And those who binge drink are more likely to suffer from memory problems that persist into adulthood.

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Neil Harrison, Ph.D., professor of anesthesiology and pharmacology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S) who researches the effects of alcohol on the brain, said:

Other researchers have looked at the neuroscience of binge drinking — by getting mice intoxicated through vapor inhalation or alcohol injection. Michael Salling, Ph.D., assistant professor of anesthesiology at VP&S, and his team are taking a different approach, allowing the mice to drink voluntarily. Harrison said:

The consequences of binge drinking in adolescent mice are also similar to the effects in humans. As the mice become young adults, those that drank heavily in their youth adopt drinking patterns often seen in people. Salling explained:

Binge drinking affects memory

And just like people, binge drinking mice also suffer memory problems, as shown in Harrison and Salling’s most recent study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience. The study is the first to show that voluntary alcohol consumption in adolescent mice leads to a deficit in very short-term memory known as “working memory” — and it’s giving the researchers a window into what binge drinking does to the teenage brain.

Binge drinking affects the pyramidal neurons from the prefrontal cortex of a mouse brain.
A pyramidal neuron from the prefrontal cortex of a mouse brain. (Neil Harrison and Michael Salling via Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

The most striking changes the researchers saw appeared in neurons within the mouse equivalent of the human prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is involved in planning actions by suppressing inappropriate responses and maintaining working memory and attention. The area does not completely mature in people until their 20s.

In the binge drinking mice, certain PFC neurons were less able to generate persistent activity, and these changes appear to impair working memory. This finding is consistent with imaging studies that show decreased resting activity in the PFC of alcoholics and binge drinkers. Salling said:

Harrison and Salling found that binge drinking altered neuron excitability by interfering with channels that allow ions to flow into the neurons. Harrison said:

Harrison, also adds that neurobiological studies such as this are needed to develop new treatments for alcohol use disorders.

Provided by Columbia University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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