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Young binge drinkers may harm brain cells

Young binge drinkers could be doing serious damage -- to their brain.

New research by scientists at the University of Cincinnati has shown that too much alcohol can harm brain cells in still-growing brains.

"Alcohol might be neurotoxic to the neuron cells," said Tim McQueeny, a doctoral student and co-researcher in the pilot study.

"Or, since the brain is developing in one's 20s, it could be interacting with developmental factors and possibly altering the ways in which the brain is still growing," he added.

Binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks in a row for women and five or more drinks for men.

McQueeny explained that a drink could be 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, 12 ounces of beer, or 4 to 5 ounces of wine, which all contain the same amount of alcohol. "It didn't matter what kind of drink," he said. "When the combined alcohol reaches the binge level we see the effects."

The findings are important because figures from a National Institute on Drug Abuse report show that about 42 percent of American adults age 18 to 25 have engaged in binge drinking.

The researchers used high-resolution scans to study the brains of 29 weekend binge drinkers. They found changes in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that governs attention, planning, decision-making and processing emotions and controlling impulses leading to irrational behavior.

They also studied gray matter in the brain, which is involved in thinking and transmitting messages.

"We have seen evidence that binge drinking is associated with reduced integrity in the white matter, the brain's highways that communicate neuron messaging, but alcohol may affect the gray matter differently than the white matter," McQueeny explained.

McQueeny, who will present the findings to the annual meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism in Atlanta this week, said the more intense the binge drinking was, the more severe the brain damage.

"There is evidence that drinking below the binge level may be less harmful," said Professor Krista Lisdahl Medina, the senior author of the ongoing study.

McQueeny said drinkers can protect themselves by moderating their drinking. Brains damaged by alcohol also show signs of recovery after a period of abstinence.

"With abstinence there was normalizing of brain structure. The brain's very adapted to doing that. So there's hope," he added.