Binge drinking can impair both mood and cognitive performance

March 14, 2005

According to various reports, binge drinking by young people is increasing in Britain, the United States, and in developing countries throughout the world. Previous research suggests that binge drinking may have implications for the development of alcohol dependence. Research published in the March issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research has found that binge drinking itself has negative behavioral consequences, affecting mood and cognitive performance.

"There is evidence that repeated, abrupt increases of alcohol levels in the brain, followed by abstinence, induces more damage in the brain than the same amount of alcohol taken uninterrupted in the same length of time," said Theodora Duka, professor at the University of Sussex and corresponding author for the study. "For instance, animals and humans who have undergone several withdrawals from alcohol will develop convulsions during withdrawal whereas their counterparts who have received the same amount of alcohol but have not experienced repeated withdrawal will not. Thus, we set out on this study to examine the effects of binge drinking on cognitive function."

"The approach of selecting individuals according to their self reports of drinking history and then assessing their mood and other cognitive abilities is unique," added Fulton T. Crews, director of the Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina. "These individuals are not seeking treatment or aware of alcohol induced changes in their psychological make up."

Researchers recruited 100 (50 males, 50 females) young (between the ages of 18 and 30 years of age) and healthy moderate-to-heavy social drinkers to answer numerous questions about their alcohol and drug use, as well as their character traits and mood states, and to perform verbal IQ, working memory and vigilance tasks.

Those individuals identified as binge drinkers reported less-positive moods than did non-binge drinkers. In addition, female binge drinkers performed worse on the working-memory and vigilance tasks than did the female non-binge drinkers.

"Binge drinking is associated with a negative, [as in] depressive, mood," said Duka. "[It is also associated with] an impaired performance in a working memory task, which tests the ability to hold important information in short-term memory to use it for accurate response, and also in a task that measures how well an individual can withhold a response, which under the circumstances is inappropriate. These two latter effects were more pronounced in the female binge drinkers."

"What is particularly novel about this report is the finding that females are impaired more than males," said Crews. "The recent increase in female college student drinking could increase the incidence of females seeking treatment for alcohol dependence over the next decade or two."

Crews added that these findings also provide important biological data on how binge drinking may be associated with the psychological makeup of individuals. "Changes in mood states and executive function can alter behavior in ways that would promote progression to dependence," he said. "This study can not distinguish between mood and cognitive dysfunction promoting binge drinking or binge drinking inducing dysfunction, however, both might be true."

Crews suggested that future studies follow young individuals known to binge drink for several years to better understand the course of their drinking. "If binge drinkers progress to greater mood and cognitive disruption, eventually reaching full criteria for dependence, as is hypothesized, it would be a particularly strong indicator that binge drinking represents a key component in promoting the progression to alcohol dependence. Further, it would more strongly link the behavioral dysfunction caused by binge drinking to development of dependence. It would also be particularly interesting to determine if individuals who stop binge drinking show a reversal of mood and executive deficits."

Duka added that researchers already know that people will self medicate with alcohol if suffering from symptoms of anxiety or depression. "We need to know also whether binge drinking will contribute to anxiety and depression and if the effects of binge drinking and mood add together to impair cognitive performance. We plan to study how such effects of binge drinking on cognition and mood interact with stress," she said.
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER) is the official journal of the Research Society on Alcoholism and the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism. The co-author of the ACER paper, "Binge Drinking, Cognitive Performance and Mood in a Population of Young Social Drinkers," was Julia M. Townshend of the Laboratory of Experimental Psychology at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. The study was funded by the UK Medical Research Council.

Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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