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Drinking may destroy parts of memory forever

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Binge drinking during your teenage years interferes with the developing brain and can lead to poor memory in adulthood, new research suggests. Alcohol is no friend to the brain or body, raising risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, memory loss – and research suggests the effects don’t wear off with age.Even though they are under the legal drinking age, adolescents between 12 and 20 are estimated to sip and shoot more than 10 percent of alcohol consumed in the United States (US).

The same group is particularly vulnerable to binge drinking, which, according to new Columbia University research, is toxic to their developing brains and causes their memories to fail them in adulthood.Since the late 1990s, binge drinking has been on a somewhat steady decline among middle school, high school and college students in the US, though 2017 saw a slight uptick for high school seniors and eighth graders.

The slow-down in fast drinking is encouraging, particularly considering scientists’ long-held theory that alcohol can be especially damaging to developing minds. Brains undergo their most rapid and fundamental changes through about age six, but the parts responsible for higher mental functions keep transforming well through adolescence. One of the most important areas of the brain that is still malleable during adolescence is the prefrontal cortex, which is crucial to our personalities, ability to make complex decisions and plans and to certain elements of memory.

In their new study, the Columbia researchers used mice models to observe how binge drinking might affect this and other areas of the brain.Immediate mental effects of binge drinking – which, for humans, is defined as having four or five drinks in two hours – are obvious and familiar: slurred speech, seeming ‘slow,’ cognitively, lack of coordination and forgetfulness.

The scientists got young mice drunk, but they were less interested in how these pups behaved as how their brains would work later.Long after drunkenness had subsided, the mice that ‘binge drank’ in adolescence were still showing distinct differences in both their behaviors and brains once they became adults.What is the working memory? Working memory is dictated by the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This region rests at the very front and center of the brain, just behind the forehead.

Working memory is ‘on call’ during problem-solving tasks and is crucial to learning. Information is taken in and stored in the working memory, from where it can be quickly accessed and applied to a task at hand.

Working memory is part of the brain’s higher executive functioning system. It is often also called ‘short term’ memory, though some say that this is not quite accurate.Short term memory is more accurately a temporary storage area, whereas working memories are more malleable, making this a more active part of the learning and recall system.“Using a mouse model of voluntary binge drinking during adolescence, we found that this behavior leads to working memory deficits and altered drinking behavior in adulthood,” the study authors wrote.

When alcohol was around these mice were more likely to ‘front-load’ their booze, drinking quickly in the first five minutes it was available, suggesting alcoholic tendencies in adulthood.The researchers also saw significant differences in the memories of these teen-drinking mice when they became adults. Specifically, their working memories seemed to be faulty, even in adulthood. Any impairments to working memory can badly interfere with learning as well as the ability to follow instructions, and solve problems.

Essentially, anything you have to focus on requires working memory, which functions sort of like a ‘mental sticky note,’ as Understood.org puts it.Information that we have recently taken in is stored there, like a holding area, until it needs to be applied again.

But the mice that had been heavy drinkers in adolescence struggled with tasks that required them to learn something and then reapply the information that should have been stowed safely and effectively in their prefrontal cortices.

When the Columbia team examined these mice’s brains, they found that the neurons in this brain region were altered in such a way that they were likely sort of lazy and would not be able to keep up the high level of activity required for working memory. “These findings may help explain why human adolescent binge drinkers show performance deficits on tasks mediated by the prefrontal cortex,” the researchers wrote.


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