Binge drinking has been named by university presidents as the single biggest problem on college campuses, contributing to accidental injuries, unintended pregnancies, date rapes, and alcohol poisoning. If that's not enough to stop students from drinking excessively, perhaps they'll be influenced by this new Spanish study: College students who binge drink have a slightly lowered ability to remember lists of words when the alcohol wears off compared with those who don't binge drink.
While it's not clear from the study if binge drinking actually caused
these memory defects, this and previous research "supports
that possibility," says Aaron White, a college drinking prevention researcher at the US
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism who is familiar with
the study. And that could mean that students, say, have trouble remembering a list of dates for history class or an equation in math class.
How many drinks is a binge? Five or more servings of alcohol in a day for a man and four or more servings for a woman, according to Harvard researchers who studied alcohol's effects on different genders. A serving of alcohol is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces, or a shot, of spirits or liquor (rum, vodka, whiskey).
"This is not about getting drunk one time but binging with some regularity," says White. "The strongest evidence we have suggests that those at greatest risk for memory impairment drink heavily and often -- often to the point of developing withdrawal symptoms."
Researchers don't know how long the small memory deficits last or how much impact they have on academic performance. But they do believe college students' brains might be more susceptible to the effects of binging than their older parents'. White's research in rats found that the circuits involved in memory formation are far more sensitive to the effects of alcohol in an "adolescent" rat's brain than in an adult's.
In humans, neurologists now know that critical brain development doesn't end until our early 20s.
A good reason to keep 21 as the legal drinking age? "Absolutely," says White.
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