By Matt McMillen
MONDAY, May 16, 2011 (Health.com) — After a night of partying, it's not uncommon for college students to wake up with a fuzzy recollection of the evening’s events. But a new study suggests that binge drinking may impair memory in young people long after the hangover has worn off, perhaps because of damage to the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning.
In the study, which appears in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers in Spain gave a series of simple language and memory tests to 122 college students between the ages of 18 and 20, roughly half of whom were self-identified binge drinkers. The other half also drank alcohol, but more moderately.
In the first test, for instance, the students read lists of words and then tried to recall as many of them as they could in increasingly difficult exercises. In another, they were told two stories and asked to recount them as accurately as possible.
Binge drinkers performed more poorly than the other group in nearly all the word-based tests, even after the researchers controlled for complicating factors such as a family history of alcoholism, marijuana use, and mental disorders. Compared to their peers, the binge drinkers were more easily distracted by new information, recalled fewer words, and retained about 4% less of the information in the stories.
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The study does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between binge drinking and memory impairment. It's possible, for instance, that students who struggle with learning and attention might be more prone to binge drink, rather than vice versa.
However, the researchers say, the findings do suggest a "clear association" between binge drinking and difficulty with tasks linked to particular brain regions, especially the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus is especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of alcohol, they write.
Thomas Hicklin, MD, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, says he hopes the study will make college students more aware of the not-so-obvious risks of binge drinking.
"This is an important topic and a multifaceted problem," says Dr. Hicklin, who counsels many students at the USC Health Care Clinic. "There's a lot of peer pressure when it comes to binge drinking, but students need to protect their brains."
If binge drinking does damage the hippocampus—as the study suggests—researchers aren’t certain whether the damage is permanent. "That has not been studied," Dr. Hicklin says.
The study authors, who are based at the University of Santiago de Compostela, called for long-term studies that would follow groups of students before and after they started—and stopped—binge drinking regularly. Such studies would clarify the effects of heavy drinking on short-term memory as well as academic performance, they write.