The brain risks of binge drinking

  • Neurodegeneration has been commonly thought to occur during alcohol withdrawal.
  • A new study has confirmed that neuronal damage can occur during a binge pattern of drinking.
  • Damage to the olfactory bulb, responsible for smell, occurred after just two days of 'binge drinking.'
  • Damage to other regions of the brain occurred after just four days of 'binge drinking.'

Scientists agree that alcohol is toxic and that chronic alcohol abuse can damage all organs - including the brain - to various degrees. There is less agreement, however, on whether or how much neurodegeneration is triggered by alcohol's toxicity during alcohol consumption or by the hyperexcitability caused by withdrawal from alcohol. A study in the April issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research uses rodents to examine what effects just a few days of the equivalent of binge drinking can have on neuronal function.

"Most studies of alcohol-induced brain damage have looked at humans who have been alcoholic for decades or rats treated with alcohol for six to 18 months," said Fulton T. Crews, Director of the Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina and corresponding author for the study. "Our study shows significant damage in several regions of the brain after only four days, that it occurs during intoxication, and that the process is similar to a dark-cell degeneration that is primarily necrotic." Necrosis refers to the pathologic death of cells or a portion of tissue or organ due to irreversible damage.

Male Sprague-Dawley rats (n=120) were surgically implanted with intragastric catheters. Experimental rats (n= 80) were given alcohol at a rate equivalent to binge drinking, every eight hours for four consecutive days. Doses were based on their estimated blood alcohol levels. Control rats (n=40) were given an alcohol-free yet calorie-equivalent diet at the same rate. Several histologic


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