Forget the hangover. Binge drinking is bad for the brain

Dora Duka is Professor of Experimental Psychology with the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.

Dora Duka

Dora’s research story

Binge drinking is a huge problem in the UK, particularly among young people. The effects of alcohol on the liver are well documented, but what do we know about the long-term consequences for binge drinkers’ brains, and what can be done to address the damage? Dora Duka’s research is pushing the boundaries of what we know about the brain and offering hope both to those who binge drink and alcoholics.

Binge drinking is defined as drinking lots of alcohol over a short period of time or drinking in order to get drunk. It’s a phenomenon that’s become increasingly common in the UK, putting a strain on our already stretched NHS through drink-related accidents, injuries and disease.

And the problem is spreading both in the US and across Europe, with the French blaming the UK for a rise in ‘le binge drinking’.

We already know a good deal about the effect of binge drinking on our livers. A recent study reveals that what it calls ‘tremendous liver damage’ is 13 times higher in those who binge regularly. But less is known about the effects on the brain – something that Dora Duka has set out to change.

I feel really good that my research might ultimately help people on to a better path in life.” Dora Duka
Professor of Experimental Psychology

What Dora has found is that in people who repeatedly expose their brains to high levels of alcohol, it’s not just the alcohol that damages the brain but the withdrawal when you stop drinking, when the high levels suddenly drop. It’s what she calls a ‘lose-lose situation’.

Worryingly, in young binge drinkers there’s a significant reduction of white matter in the brain, especially in those in their teens and early twenties, as the brain is still developing. So, the more you binge in your youth, the more damage you’re doing, and the consequences for mental health, memory, behaviour control, and planning and decision-making abilities can be catastrophic.

Dora’s research also shows that whether you experience drunkenness during a binge is critical to the amount of damage being done. “The point at which you feel drunk,” she explains, “is the point when alcohol is blocking certain chemicals in your brain the most. When the alcohol is broken down, these chemicals are released again abruptly, and that’s when even more damage is done.”

A similar phenomenon is seen in alcoholics starting detoxification programmes. Their brains are damaged not only by their chronic alcohol intake but by abruptly stopping drinking. “And the more detoxes they experience,” says Dora, ‘the worse the damage.”

Dora’s research is now changing the way alcoholics are treated when they start detoxification. She is working with a group of clinicians in London to develop a new programme that uses a tapered approach so that withdrawal isn’t so abrupt.

She’s also exploring the possible benefits of a drug that increases the efficiency of noradrenaline, a brain chemical that supports attention and helps decisions. “We’re activating damaged areas of the brain to see if the drug helps to improve some of the cognitive impairments binge drinkers experience, helping their ability to plan and carry out tasks and control behaviour.

“I hope that we can improve treatment, perhaps using a combination of cognitive behavioural approaches and drugs. I feel really good that my research might ultimately help people on to a better path in life.”

For Dora the public health message about alcohol is clear, “either abstain completely or drink moderately and space your drinking over the course of the week. I personally enjoy a drink while eating with my family,” she says, “but it’s never a good idea to get drunk. That’s something I have learned culturally as well as scientifically.

“In my home country, Greece, if you get drunk, someone takes you home immediately to protect you. It’s strange that in the UK, and increasingly elsewhere, being drunk is often looked on as a positive.”

Find out more about Dora’s research.

Last updated: 26 April 2017

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