22 October 2003
Binge drinkers can't work out strategies
New evidence that binge drinking is associated with impaired brain function has been produced by University of Sussex researchers.
A study found that those who drank large amounts in a relatively short space of time once or twice a week performed worse in tasks that required them to develop strategies than social drinkers who spread their alcohol intake.
Experimental psychologist Dr Theodora Duka, who carried out the work with Dr Ruth Weissenborn, said the binge drinker's approach was more chaotic, suggesting damage to the frontal lobe section of the brain responsible for executive function.
"We don't know whether changes in this part of the brain are the cause or the effect of binge drinking," says Dr Duka. "We also don't know, at this stage, whether the changes are permanent."
Dr Duka looked at the drinking habits of a sample of 96 people aged between 18 and 34. Bingers were identified by how many drinks they would have in an hour, how many times they had been drunk in the past six months and the percentage of occasions they would get drunk when going out.
The bingers and non-bingers were required to perform in a controlled environment four tasks that measured aspects of frontal lobe function, including a memory game, pattern recognition and spatial recognition.
The results showed that binge drinkers were poorer in their strategy scores and made more search errors than non-bingers in the spatial working memory task. They also made more errors in pattern recognition. It was not that binge drinkers needed alcohol on board to perform because alcohol impaired performance in both groups and the groups remained different in their cognitive function.
Similar results were found in another more recent study by Dr Duka on binge drinkers and on diagnosed alcoholics who had undergone two or more attempts to "dry out".
Dr Duka said it appeared that withdrawal from alcohol, followed by period of bingeing was more likely to cause damage to the frontal lobe than consistent low rates of drinking.
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