Binge drinking 'can harm brains within months and turn social drinkers into alcohol abusers'Teenagers and young people are the most vulnerable to early changes in brain

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UPDATED:

00:39 GMT, 16 October 2012

Binge drinking can damage the brain within months and turn social drinkers into alcohol abusers, researchers warn.

Tests found that having a smaller amount of alcohol every day – as the French do – is far safer.

Scientists who exposed rats to alcohol for three days a week claim their findings provide an insight into how the brain adapts to drinking patterns.

Researchers have found binge drinking can damage the brain within months

Researchers have found binge drinking can damage the brain within months

They found that the ‘binge-drinking’
rats were consuming far more than those with a continuous supply of
alcohol after only six weeks.

The binge-drinking rats also showed
signs of impairment in brain function similar to that of established
alcoholics after only a few months.

The researchers linked the rats’
impairment to a small group of brain cells, or neurons, in the
prefrontal cortex of the brain, which normally act as a brake on
emotional and impulsive behaviour.

These neurons were unusually active in
the periods between drinking binges – and the more active they were,
the more the rats drank when they next had access to alcohol.

Binge drinking sessions are likely to affect teenagers and young people the most, according to research

Binge drinking sessions are likely to affect teenagers and young people the most, according to research

Lead researcher Olivier George of The
Scripps Research Institute in California said: ‘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, a little bit
frustrated, and so you take more the next time you have access.

‘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.’

The study appears in the online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr George said tests carried out
during ‘dry’ intervals between drinking sessions showed that the
binge-drinking rats scored poorly on memory, and also struggled with
emotions.

‘We normally see such changes in the
brains of humans or other animals that are highly dependent on alcohol –
but here we found these changes in the rats after only a few months of
intermittent alcohol use,’ he said.

Scientists believe that if people drink alcohol three days a week, they will drink more than those with a continuous supply

Scientists believe that if people drink alcohol three days a week, they will drink more than those with a continuous supply

The impairments did not appear at all
in the rats that drank every day. Their alcohol intake remained stable.
‘They just drink a bit like the French way, the equivalent of a couple
of glasses of wine every day, and they’re fine,’ Dr George said. ‘They
don’t escalate.’

The binge-drinking rats’ problems went
away if they were kept off alcohol for about two weeks –but the
impairment would return if they drank again.

‘One can see the vicious cycle here,’ Dr George said.

‘They drink to restore normal prefrontal function, but ultimately that leads to even greater impairment.’

The research was conducted on rats. The negative effect on their brain disappeared if they were kept off alcohol for two weeks but returned if they drank again

The research was conducted on rats. The negative effect on their brain disappeared if they were kept off alcohol for two weeks but returned if they drank again

George Koob, of the research
institute’s Pearson Center for Alcoholism and Addiction Research, said:
‘This process would be of particular concern in adolescents and young
adults, in whom the prefrontal cortex isn’t even fully developed.’

The researchers are investigating the
brain’s over-production of a stress chemical called CRF, which is
released by alcohol-dependent rats – and probably human alcoholics –
during abstinence.

It generates feelings of anxiety that can be relieved only by drinking again.

Dr Koob said the latest results suggest that CRF-blocking drugs could work to prevent alcohol dependence.