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Published 15 September 2017  By Tim Newman

Researchers uncover changes in brain activity associated with binge drinking. Earlier studies showed that alcoholic people have measurable changes in their resting brain activity. And now, for the first time, researchers find similar changes in the brains of non-alcoholic students who binge drink.

Non-bingers' and bingers' brains compared

When the neural activity of the two groups was compared, there were significant differences. More specifically, there was a measurable increase in beta and theta oscillations in the right temporal lobe - particularly the parahippocampal and fusiform gyri - and the occipital cortex.

The parahippocampal gyrus is believed to play a part in coding and retrieving memories. The fusiform gyrus does not have a well-defined role to date but seems to be involved in recognition. The occipital cortex deals with processing visual information.

Interestingly, the increased activity in these areas mirrors those found in the brains of chronic alcoholics.

The researchers believe that the alterations in brain activity might be early signs of alcohol-induced brain damage. Changes in these regions may indicate a reduction in their ability to respond to external stimuli, which may hamper information processing.

Younger brains are still developing, and the researchers believe that this might make them more vulnerable to alcohol damage.

"These features might be down to the particularly harmful effects of alcohol on young brains that are still in development, perhaps by delaying neuromaturational processes." Eduardo López-Caneda

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Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children

Just over 40% of teens reported having had a few sips of alcohol by the age of 15, but only 16% had consumed a full serve. Of those who had tried alcohol, 28% of boys and 15% of girls had done so before the age of 13.

This doesn’t mean that young teenagers who have tried alcohol are necessarily drinking to excess, just that they are sampling alcohol at a relatively young age. For most 14- and 15-year-olds, drinking alcohol was not a regular practice — only 7% had consumed an alcoholic drink in the month before their interview.

Parents’ regular, short-term, risky drinking was shown to be a strong factor in influencing their teenage children to try alcohol. Around 11% of mothers and 30% of fathers reported having at least five drinks on a single occasion at least twice a month.

Most parents did not drink daily; of those who did, more men than women exceeded guidelines for long-term risk.

graphic

Percentage of parents (of 12–to-13-year-olds) who drink at risky levels.

Friends also had a strong influence. Almost 40% of those who had at least one friend who drank alcohol had tried alcohol themselves, compared to only 5% of those who had no friends who drank.

Teens were also more likely to have tried alcohol if they were the only child, in the later stages of puberty, or in a single-parent household. But even after accounting for all these factors, there was still a significant association between parents’ drinking habits and adolescents’ alcohol use. Those whose parents drank at a risky level were most likely to have tried alcohol

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Henry Bodkin  18/8/17 

The ‘work hard, play hard’ medical student who burns the candle at both ends, consuming prodigious quantities of alcohol before an early morning anatomy class, has long been a staple of university life.

But a new survey carried out for the British Medical Journal suggests this stereotype is now little more than a myth.

Merely one in ten future doctors currently exceed the Government’s recommended weekly alcohol limit, and a quarter profess themselves to be completely teetotal

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Adolescents who drink alcohol are at increased risk for injury and substance use disorder later in life, even when they do not meet criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD). This study assessed changes in grey matter volumes over a 10-year period between adolescence and early adulthood in individuals who had alcohol use (as defined by AUDIT-C score), but did not meet criteria for AUD or use other substances.

  • The following areas had smaller grey matter volumes in participants with “heavy” drinking when compared with those with “light” consumption* (control): bilateral subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, right orbitofrontal and frontopolar cortex, right superior temporal gyrus, and the right insular cortex.

* Defined by authors as: heavy = AUDIT-C score of ≥4 for males or ≥3 for females; light = AUDIT-C score of ≤2.

Comments: This study demonstrates that even levels of alcohol consumption that may be considered benign “experimentation” during adolescence are associated with smaller grey matter in several brain regions. Functional changes in the insular cortex are associated with propensity to return to substance use; disrupted development in this area may be the basis of the association between early initiation and increased risk of AUD in adulthood. The results underscore the risks of adolescent alcohol use and suggest that AUD diagnostic criteria may not be sensitive enough to identify them in this population.

Sharon Levy, MD, MPH

Reference: Heikkinen N, Niskanen E, Könönen M, et al. Alcohol consumption during adolescence is associated with reduced grey matter volumes

Addiction. 2017;112(4):604–613.

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