Paul Steinberg on the Danger of Binge Drinking

Posted by Kendall Harmon

New Year’s Eve tends to be the day of the year with the most binge drinking (based on drunken driving fatalities), followed closely by Super Bowl Sunday. Likewise, colleges have come to expect that the most alcohol-filled day of their students’ lives is their 21st birthday. So, some words of caution for those who continue to binge and even for those who have stopped: just as the news is not so great for former cigarette smokers, there is equally bad news for recovering binge-drinkers who have achieved a sobriety that has lasted years. The more we have binged — and the younger we have started to binge — the more we experience significant, though often subtle, effects on the brain and cognition.

Much of the evidence for the impact of frequent binge-drinking comes from some simple but elegant studies done on lab rats by Fulton T. Crews and his former student Jennifer Obernier. Dr. Crews, the director of the University of North Carolina Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, and Dr. Obernier have shown that after a longstanding abstinence following heavy binge-drinking, adult rats can learn effectively — but they cannot relearn.

When put into a tub of water and forced to continue swimming until they find a platform on which to stand, the sober former binge-drinking rats and the normal control rats (who had never been exposed to alcohol) learned how to find the platform equally well. But when the experimenters abruptly moved the platform, the two groups of rats had remarkably different performances. The rats without previous exposure to alcohol, after some brief circling, were able to find the new location. The former binge-drinking rats, however, were unable to find the new platform; they became confused and kept circling the site of the old platform.

This circling occurs, Dr. Crews says, because the former binge-drinking rats continued to show neurotoxicity in the hippocampus long after (in rat years) becoming sober. On a microscopic level, Dr. Crews has shown that heavy binge-drinking in rats diminishes the genesis of nerve cells, shrinks the development of the branchlike connections between brain cells and contributes to neuronal cell death. The binges activate an inflammatory response in rat brains rather than a pure regrowth of normal neuronal cells. Even after longstanding sobriety this inflammatory response translates into a tendency to stay the course, a diminished capacity for relearning and maladaptive decision-making.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchTeens / YouthYoung Adults

7 Comments
Posted December 29, 2007 at 11:46 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. SBNF wrote:

I read this study on another blog that analogized this study to decision making in the U.S. Executive branch.  May be a stretch.

December 29, 2:34 pm | [comment link]
2. selah wrote:

Fantastic article.  As a high school teacher, I worry about the long-term effects that drinking has on my students.

For another well-researched article on the hazards of adolescent drinking (even in moderation):

http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A37205-2003May9¬Found=true

December 29, 2:55 pm | [comment link]
3. recchip wrote:

This is an interesting study and is particularly relevant to we “WHISKYPALIANS”.  Remember the old joke of “Anywhere there are four Episcopalians, there is always a Fifth.”  I was actually told by a youth worker, “if you want to carry your Bible, just carry it in a brown paper bag.  Since you are Episcopalian, nobody will ever suspect that you are carrying a Bible.” 
When I attended “the Episcopal University” (The University of the South, Sewanee) we often wondered why we were not listed in the “biggest drinking schools.”  Somebody called one of the people who compile those lists and were told that, the other colleges are “amateurs” at drinking; Sewanee Students are considered PROFESSIONALS!!!

December 29, 3:33 pm | [comment link]
4. Bob from Boone wrote:

#3, I’m a Sewanee alumnus who heard the same story when I matriculated 50 years ago. But our drinking was mild compared with the binge drinking that this article focuses on. Drinking did get rather serious at Sewanee in the fraternities some years ago, as I recall, and the University administration had to intervene.

Let’s hope there are no more “Whiskypalian” jokes. We should be leading by a good example. Afterall, isn’t the Anglican Way one of moderation?

December 29, 8:57 pm | [comment link]
5. RevK wrote:

Bob from Boone,

Stephen P. Apthorp, who is a sociologist and guru on all things alcoholic and clergy, states that Episcopalians/Anglican and Jews have the lowest rate of alcoholism of any denominations, primarily because they are willing to talk about their drinking.  As the old joke goes, “What’s the difference between an Episcopalian and a Baptist?”  Answer - “An Episcopalian will say ‘hi’ to you in the liquor store.”

December 29, 9:39 pm | [comment link]
6. selah wrote:

It seems pretty obvious to me that the Bible allows believers to drink, but it clearly prohibits getting drunk.  The ‘binge drinking’ described in this article implies a level of drunkeness.  The premise of the research is that drunkeness causes brain damage—not just the short-term kind that makes drunks act like fools—but long-term neural disfunction that persists after the inebriated state has left.

This is information that more people should know.

December 29, 11:54 pm | [comment link]
7. recchip wrote:

#4 Bob from Boone,
Hello fellow alum.  Yea, Sewanee’s Right!!!

It was not just the Fraternities.  After the Easter Vigil one year (Late Saturday night) there was a reception.  Between the choir, the acolytes, the chapel staff, and (most memorably) the Rector of the Local parish, we went trough 10 cases of champagne paid for by the University.  Easter morning service was “interesting” to say the least.  In addition, during summer school (which I attended one summer to take some extra courses I could not “fit in” during the normal year) on Friday afternoons there were University paid for kegs on the quad. (Actually in front of the old alumni office in Thompson).  Also, each Friday during my senior year, we had mimosas (champagne and OJ) during our 9 AM Genetics Class.  One time, several of us actually fell asleep in our 10 AM classes (in my case, Computer Science).  And of course, many many classes were held in the Pub.  All this was possible because my class (1987) was the last class to be “legal.”  When we started, the Tennessee drinking age was 18, it went up to 19, 20, and 21 as we did.  There were a number of “societies” (drinking clubs) in existance.  (Initiation into them included drinking crazy amounts of booze.  One had the person chug a beer, wait 10 minutes, chug another, wait 9 minutes, chug another, wait 8 minutes etc.  Most folks passed out or threw up before they got to “chug a beer and wait one minute!!”)  The administration also “protected” students from the consequences of DUI/DWI.  I remember one student being chased by a (non university) police car.  He pulled up in front of Walsh-Ellet (admin) and ran into the dean’s office.  He was given “sanctuary” and the dean called the campus police who “escorted” the non-Sewanee Police officer off campus.

Needless to say, there was much “binge drinking” going on.  This was calmed down when it became illegal for over half of the student body to drink.

December 30, 12:52 am | [comment link]
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