Binge drinking, defined as more than five drinks on one occasion, has become a common and more extreme pattern of drinking among young Australians.
Recognising that adolescence is a critical period for brain development, we are conducting research into how excessive drinking affects the teenage brain. This research will be crucial to informing our alcohol licensing laws and public health advice.
In adolescence, the brain undergoes active rewiring of circuitry that is necessary for successful development of ‘adult’ adaptive patterns of behaviour and cognitive functioning, with particular focus on the frontal lobe and its connections. Prof Lindy Rae is examining this connectivity in the brains of binge drinkers and comparing these ‘tracts’ to those from control (abstaining) participants. We are also studying the size of brain regions known to be affected by alcohol, such as the hippocampus, to see whether brain structure is altered by binge drinking.
We are using questionnaires, cognitive testing and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look for changes in structure and connectivity as well as chemical differences in the brain.
Alcohol is thought to induce a state where the glutamate system – the major excitatory system in the brain – becomes unbalanced. We have found significant elevations in frontal lobe glutamate in boys who binge drink. Binge drinkers showed impaired neuro-cognitive function, with significantly slower responses and greater errors on the tests of inhibition and poorer emotional face recognition compared to non drinkers. These changes were positively correlated with binge drinking episodes and alcohol consumption.