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Study Suggests Heavy Drinking by Teens Impairs Spatial Working Memory
By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD
July 15, 2011 -- Binge drinking may have lasting effects on the still-developing brains of teenagers.
A new study shows that long after the hangover wears off, binge drinking impairs the spatial working memory of teenagers. Girls appear especially vulnerable to these effects.
Spatial working memory is the ability to perceive the space around you, remember, and work with this information to perform a task, such as using a map, playing sports, or driving a car.
"Our study found that female teenage heavy drinkers had less brain activation in several brain regions than female non-drinking teens when doing the same spatial task," says researcher Susan F. Tapert, acting chief of psychology at the VA San Diego Healthcare System, in a news release. "These differences in brain activity were linked to worse performance on other measures of attention and working memory ability."
"Even though adolescents might physically appear grown up, their brains are continuing to significantly develop and mature, particularly in frontal brain regions that are associated with higher-level thoughts, like planning and organization," says Tapert. "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."
The study is published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Lingering Effects of Teen Binge Drinking
In the study, researchers compared the performance of 40 teenage binge drinkers and 55 non-drinking teenagers on a working spatial memory task on a computer. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the participants' brains were taken during the task to show differences in brain activity.
The results showed binge drinking was associated with gender-specific differences in brain activation during the working spatial memory task. Male binge drinkers showed greater activation in all brain regions during the task while female binge drinkers showed less activation than non-drinkers.
For female teenage binge drinkers, these differences correlated with worse performance on the working spatial memory task as well as poorer sustained attention.
Among male teenage binge drinkers, greater activation in the brain translated to better spatial memory performance.
Researchers say the results suggest that teenage girls may be more vulnerable to the toxic effects of binge drinking on the brain while males may be more resilient.
"Females' brains develop one to two years earlier than males, so alcohol use during a different developmental stage -- despite the same age -- could account for the gender differences," Talpert says. "Hormonal levels and alcohol-induced fluctuations in hormones could also account for the gender differences. Finally, the same amount of alcohol could more negatively affect females since females tend to have slower rates of metabolism, higher body fat ratios, and lower body weight."
Researchers say these gender differences for the effects of teenage binge drinking on brain development merit further study.
"These findings remind us that adolescent boys and girls are biologically different and represent distinctive groups that require separate and parallel study," says researcher Edith V. Sullivan, PhD, professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, in the news release.
"And yet binge-drinking is a dangerous activity for all youth," says Sullivan. "Long after a young person -- middle school to college -- enjoys acute recovery from a hang-over, this study shows that risk to cognitive and brain functions endures. The effects on the developing brain are only now being identified. 'Why tamper with normal developmental trajectories that will likely set the stage for cognitive and motor abilities for the rest of one's life?'"