Effects of Alcohol on College-Age Brains

Results of our study demonstrate that 18-22 year olds that drink excessively have diminished plasticity.

We conducted a study on college-aged subjects (age 18-22) to assess the impact of their drinking behavior on cortical metrics scores. The study involved testing a large number of individuals in that age range and having them answering questionnaires about their drinking behavior. Interestingly (as an aside), the regulatory oversight committee did not want to approve the study at first because they claimed that the study was assuming that individuals under the age of 21 were drinking. We’re scientists, so we try to stick with the facts and had to explain that we were not promoting drinking, just asking questions about their behavior. After the study was approved, we obtained some interesting observations.

Based on questionnaires, we categorized the test subjects based on how many drinks they consumed per month. Most of the results showed little or no difference between heavy drinkers and light drinkers. This is particularly significant in that there is quite a bit known about older-aged heavy drinkers (and typically alcoholics), and based on those findings, we would have expected the younger heavy drinkers to have reduced sensitivity and slower reaction times due to loss of white matter integrity. That was not the case for this study as the college-aged heavy drinkers did not have any of those deficits. However, with increasing consumption, we did find that there was a reduction in plasticity. The bar graphs below compare the controls (no or little drinking) with the heaviest category of drinkers (60 or more drinks per month). Note that the main difference is in the plasticity score, and this has significant implications for learning and memory. Another aspect of the study was that there did not seem to be a difference in the scores for heavy drinkers who consumed on a regular basis (such as 2 drinks per day for a month) versus heavy drinkers who occasionally binged (consuming as many as 15 or more drinks on a couple of weekends per month).
Does plasticity return with age and changing consumption habits? Is plasticity less impacted in older adults? Or does plasticity degrade with continuing habits developed during that age span? Those seem to be questions to address in the future.

For the complete peer-reviewed journal publication, click here.

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