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Binge Drinking May Affect Memory of Teens

Study Suggests Heavy Drinking by Teens Impairs Spatial Working Memory
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.

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