Brain Chemistry and Binge Drinking
A look at brain chemistry and structure offers a deeper understanding of binge drinking.
My staff and I have investigated the impact of binge alcohol consumption on frontal lobe neurochemistry and cognition during emerging adulthood (18 to 24 years old) and found significantly lower levels of frontal lobe GABA in binge drinkers relative to light drinkers. GABA levels were even lower in those who had experienced an alcohol-induced blackout.
In addition, verbal learning was uniquely impacted by binge drinking between bouts of intoxication.
Investigations conducted using animal models (because it is unethical to administer alcohol to human youth) have revealed that adolescents are less sensitive to some of the impairing effects of alcohol, like sleepiness and loss of motor control, than adults.
In adult humans, these impairing effects of alcohol serve as internal cues that tell them they have had enough to drink. Teens, however, are significantly less affected by sleepiness and loss of motor control, and so they end up binge drinking and achieving higher blood alcohol levels.
It can be hard to determine whether a young person, compared to an adult, has been drinking. In general, adults more quickly experience impaired motor skills, but not always problems with memory, when they have been drinking.
For teens, drinking impairs memory and learning, but motor control is significantly less affected. For instance, in animals, it takes adolescents about 50 minutes to recover from a sleep-inducing dose of alcohol, whereas adults take three times as long to recover. In contrast, when administered alcohol before a memory test, adolescents are significantly impaired, whereas adults remain intact.
Taken together—and given a lack of sensitivity to the outward signs of intoxication in teens—it can be difficult, not only for an adult to know if their teen has been drinking but also for teens to have insight as to their own impairment.
Low GABA levels could be one reason why adults and adolescents react to alcohol effects in such different ways. Regardless of age, in terms of neurobiology, alcohol promotes sedation, controlled by GABA in the brain, and blocks excitation, controlled by glutamate in the brain.
One reason teens may be less affected by alcohol sedation is due to having less GABA in their frontal lobe, which could promote binge drinking to get the desired effect from alcohol. A combination of low GABA and binge drinking also sets up teens for greater risk-taking, which can lead them into dangerous and sometimes fatal situations that their still-maturing brains do not always recognize as dangerous.
Boosting GABA in the brain could be a potentially effective way of protecting the teenage brain, staving off behavior that could lead to drinking and other risk-taking behaviors. One promising, natural means of boosting GABA is through the practice of yoga. Investigations, including studies conducted at McLean, into yoga as a way of boosting teenage brain GABA are currently underway.
Research into GABA levels, binge drinking, and the long-term impacts of underage drinking are deepening our understanding of why teenage alcohol consumption is dangerous. Through this work, we aim to identify who is at greatest risk for addictive and psychiatric disorders later in life.
Presenting this research to the community through educational outreach may help teens delay onset of that first drink during the crucial period of teen brain development, which in turn may serve to protect their mental health in the long run.
Armed with scientific findings on teenage drinking and brain development, teachers, parents, and others who influence and work with adolescents may find better strategies for discouraging alcohol use.
McLean Hospital offers comprehensive mental health treatment for children, adolescents, adults, and older adults, including world-class addiction recovery services. If you or your loved one needs help, call us at 978.464.2331.