Teen girls more vulnerable to negative effects of binge drinking

A study examining gender-specific influences of binge drinking on spatial working memory (SWM) has found that female teens may be particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of heavy alcohol use.

Binge or ‘heavy episodic’ drinking is prevalent during adolescence, raising concerns about alcohol’s effects on crucial neuromaturational processes during this developmental period. Heavy alcohol use has been associated with decreased cognitive functioning in both adult and adolescent populations, particularly on SWM tasks.

“Even though adolescents might physically appear grown up, their brains are continuing to significantly develop and mature, particularly in frontal brain regions that are associated with higher-level thoughts, like planning and organisation,” said Susan F. Tapert, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego and corresponding author for this study.

“Heavy alcohol use could interrupt normal brain cell growth during adolescence, particularly in these frontal brain regions, which could interfere with teens’ ability to perform in school and sports, and could have long-lasting effects, even months after the teen uses.”

Why spatial working memory is important

Professor Tapert explained that ‘working memory’ is a term that refers to using and working with information that is held in your mind, such as adding numbers in your head. “Working memory is critical to logical thinking and reasoning,” she said.

Spatial working memory is the ability to perceive the space around you and then remember and work with this information.

“We chose to examine spatial working memory because previous studies have shown it is impaired in adults and adolescents who heavily drink alcohol,” she said. “Deficits on tasks of spatial working memory could relate to difficulties with driving, figural reasoning (like geometry class), sports (remembering and enacting complex plays), using a map, or remembering how to get to places.”

The study found that female teenage heavy drinkers had less brain activation in several brain regions than female non-drinking teens when doing the same spatial task.

“These differences in brain activity were linked to worse performance on other measures of attention and working memory ability,” said Professor Tapert. “Male binge drinkers showed some but less abnormality as compared to male non-drinkers. This suggests that female teens may be particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of heavy alcohol use.”

Why does binge-drinking do more damage to girls?

Professor Tapert said the gender differences could be due to several reasons, including:

  • females’ brains developing one to two years earlier than males, so the effects of the alcohol are occurring at a different stage of development
  • differing hormone levels and alcohol-induced fluctuations in hormones
  • slower rates of metabolism, higher body fat ratios, and lower body weight in teenage girls.

Effects measured on ‘social drinkers’

The study’s findings reflect “relatively normal healthy teens” who engage in social drinking such as having four to five drinks at a party on the weekend but not using for weeks afterwards.

“The teens we examined have relatively limited experience with alcohol, are drinking at levels that are widespread for kids their age – almost a quarter of all seniors admit to binge drinking in the preceding two weeks – have no diagnosable alcohol or drug disorder, do not use other drugs, and do not have any mental health disorders,” said Professor Tapert.





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