Moderate and Binge Drinking Harm Learning and Memory

By: Jenna Savage

Social drinking is an activity in which many college students participate. It may seem like a harmless activity – especially if students limit their drinking to the weekends, when they don’t have to worry about classes and studying – but recent studies indicate that social drinking beyond moderate levels may cause some damage to a person’s brain. In fact, the slippery slope from moderate drinking into binge drinking actually damages the structure of the brain, according to a recent PsychCentral article.

To study the effect of drinking on the brain, Rutgers University researcher Megan Anderson gave mice enough alcohol to raise their blood alcohol levels to the legal driving limit – 0.08%. That averaged out to about five alcoholic drinks for men and four for women. During a short period of time, there were no lasting impairments. However, over time, the mice presented with a 40% loss of nerve cells in the hippocampus area of their brains when compared with the mice that did not consume alcohol. As the hippocampus is responsible for forming new neurons and for helping the brain learn, damage to this area of the brain can have disastrous effects.

In particular, a decrease in brain cells can interfere with brain cell communication. This, in turn, can cause a lapse in learning and memory, which may be permanent, depending upon the severity of the damage. Moderate and binge drinking over a long period of time – such a months or even years – has the most amplified effect. Anderson suggested that people who maintain such drinking habits over a long period of time may even struggle with learning basic concepts, like the directions from one place to another.

Binge drinking is defined as drinking less over a period of time – typically during the week – and then drinking more in a short period of time, like over a weekend. It’s episodic in nature. Students often binge drink with the primary intention of becoming intoxicated. However, studies have shown that binge drinking occurs more commonly in adults over the age of 25. In particular, 70% of binge drinking episodes are seen by that adult demographic.

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism cautions that women who drink seven or more drinks weekly and men who drink 14 or more drinks weekly are at the highest risk. The Rutgers University study, which will be published in Neuroscience, also suggests that social or daily drinking may be more harmful than the public generally believes.

Students are therefore cautioned to drink wisely. Keeping binge drinking to a minimum and avoiding excessive consumption of alcohol can help them to avoid the long-lasting cognitive issues that alcohol may cause.