What Students’ Brains Have Told Us about the Effects of Binge Drinking

Findings are the Result of Brain and Alcohol Research Project
​HARTFORD, CT, March 29, 2011 – Young adults who binge drink tend to perform worse in class than normally would have been expected, but only in the first year of college. After that, drinking to excess produces no discernable difference in academic performance, according to a collaborative study by researchers at Trinity College, the Institute of Living in Hartford and Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) in New Britain.

Other findings resulting from the Brain and Alcohol Research with College Students (BARCS) project show:
• The more impulsive a student is, the more prone he or she is to having an alcohol use disorder and the more likely he or she is to come from a family with a history of alcoholism.
• Binge drinking is associated with greater impulsivity and poor attention, learning and memory functions. Students who are impulsive typically are thrill seekers, value immediate rewards over future risks, and are insensitive to the consequences of their actions.
• Female students are more likely to binge drink than male students, but this may be the result of how binge drinking is defined in men and women. For women, binge drinking is defined as having four or more drinks at one sitting, and for men it means five or more drinks at one sitting.
• Binge drinking is especially detrimental to cognitive functions and spatial learning.

The BARCS project, sponsored by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (www.niaaa.nih.gov), is now in the third year of a five-year study. However, based on research done so far, several conclusions have been drawn. The above-mentioned findings were presented in February at the 39th annual meeting of the International Neuropsychological Society in Boston, and will be presented April 2 through April 5 at the 18th annual Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting in San Francisco.

Sarah Raskin, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Trinity College, is heading the BARCS study at Trinity in conjunction with Hartford Hospital’s Institute of Living and CCSU. The study’s principal investigator is Godfrey Pearlson, professor of psychiatry in the Yale School of Medicine and a staff member at the Institute of Living. The NIAAA has provided more than $3 million in funding. The research is designed to answer questions of concern to scientists, legislators, college leaders, and students about the effects of heavy drinking by young people during their college years.

The study is of particular importance because adolescence is a high-risk period for alcohol use, and the highest rates of alcohol dependence are seen in adults ages 18 to 24. Yet the brain consequences of adolescent alcohol involvement have received limited attention, despite the fact that many college students experience a rapid increase in heavy drinking over a relatively short time period.

“We know that alcohol affects brain function while under the influence, but we don’t know enough about any long-term effects of social and binge drinking or if the young adolescent brain might be particularly vulnerable,” said Raskin. “In order to design appropriate policy, determine when interventions are necessary and which interventions might be helpful, we must first understand the effects of alcohol use on brain function.”

According to the CORE Institute, an organization that surveys drinking practices by college students, nearly 160,000 freshmen will drop out of school after their first year for alcohol or drug-related reasons.

BARCS, a large-scale longitudinal study that includes more than 2,000 college students from diverse backgrounds, set out to definitively address previously unanswered questions such as: Can heavy drinking in college affect brain structure and grades? If so, is it related to the overall amount of alcohol consumed or more to consumption patterns, such as binging and blackouts? Why is it that many students drink heavily in college but only a minority goes on to have alcohol problems after college? Are all adolescents affected equally by alcohol in terms of possible effects on brain and risk for later alcohol abuse? Is there a way to identify the people who will be longer-term problem drinkers?

"Our research is meaningful in that the results may lead to the creation of brief interventions to educate young adults about the effects of their own drinking and allow them to recognize and modify harmful drinking patterns," said Carol Shaw Austad, a professor of psychology at CCSU.

To date, the study has administered measures of impulsivity, cognition, mood, problem solving and drinking patterns to 477 first-year students at Trinity and 1,550 at CCSU. Binge drinking was defined as a pattern of drinking that raises a person’s blood alcohol content to 0.08 percent or above. All of the students were 18 to 25 years of age. 

The students completed interviews about their drinking behavior, family drinking history, other substance use, and mood.  A sample of saliva was taken in order to analyze genetic material. A subsample was recruited to receive an electroencephalogram and/or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain. After the initial testing, students were asked to complete monthly, web-based, confidential questionnaires about drinking behavior. They were followed until their junior year. They were asked to return and complete all of the initial testing.

In terms of first-year academic performance, SAT scores are good predictors of college grade point averages, specifically during the first year. This part of the study used a representative sample of 200 freshmen of which 42.5 percent were male. Scores were obtained from official school records, and drinking patterns were assessed using monthly web-based self-reporting surveys over three academic terms. Students were asked the number of days that they drank any alcohol; the number of days they engaged in heavy drinking; and the maximum number of drinks they consumed in a 24-hour period.

The researchers found that “alcohol use significantly lowered predicted GPA scores” in the first year of students’ college careers. In subsequent semesters, however, a drop in students’ GPAs was not evident, explained by either the development of a tolerance for alcohol or moderation of drinking patterns.

When it comes to a family history of alcoholism, the researchers demonstrated that individuals with a family history are four times more likely to develop alcohol-use disorders. Moreover, the risk of alcoholism doubles in people who have impulsivity characteristics or a lack of inhibitions.  The research team examined students’ performance on behavioral and cognitive measures of impulsivity/disinhibition in 842 students. Their conclusion: “Individuals with both [a family history of alcoholism] and impulsive or disinhibitory tendencies may be [at] higher risk of developing an alcohol-use disorder.”

Regarding the effects of drinking on cognitive functions in college students, 296 college students (151 women and 145 men) were administered a variety of sophisticated tests. The students were divided into groups including those who never drank; those who drank but never binged; those who binged but not in the past 30 days; and those who had binged in the past 30 days.

The researchers concluded that those who binged demonstrated significantly higher levels of both depression and anxiety; those who drank but did not binge demonstrated the greatest impulsivity; and those who binged in the past 30 days made significantly more errors on what’s called the Groton Maze Learning Test, which provides a valid measure of spatial working memory.

 “These data lend support to the notion that binge drinking is particularly detrimental to cognitive functions, particularly executive functions and spatial learning,” the researchers said.
The group of researchers also found that females were significantly more likely to binge and that they demonstrated significantly more impulsivity.

The BARCS study is scheduled to be completed in 2013. For more information, please visit: www.barcs-study.com/info.htm.

For more information, Raskin can be reached at sarah.raskin@trincoll.edu or at 860-983-5501; Pearlson at gpearls@harthosp.org or godfrey.pearlson@yale.edu or at 860-545-7800; and Austad at AUSTAD@CCSU.EDU or at 860-832-3101.

Founded in Hartford, CT, in 1823, Trinity College (www.trincoll.edu) is an independent, nonsectarian liberal arts college with about 2,400 students from 47 states and 49 countries. It is home to the eighth-oldest chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in the U.S. The faculty and alumni include recipients of the Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Awards, Guggenheim Fellowships, Rockefeller Awards and other academic honors.

Central Connecticut State University (www.ccsu.edu) is a regional, comprehensive public university dedicated to learning in the liberal arts and sciences and to education for the professions. It was founded in 1849, has roughly 12,000 students and offers undergraduate and graduate programs, including an Ed.D. in educational leadership.
Founded in 1822, the Institute of Living (www.harthosp.org/InstituteOfLiving/default.aspx) was one of the first mental health centers in the U.S., and the first hospital of any kind in Connecticut. Today, as part of Hartford Hospital, it is one of America’s leading non-for-profit centers for comprehensive patient care, research and education in the fields of behavioral, psychiatric and addiction disorders. The Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center at the Institute of Living (www.nrc-iol.org) was founded in 2002 and is at the forefront of research in psychiatric and psychological disorders. The Center uses functional, structural, and spectroscopic magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electrophysiology (EEG, ERPs), and genetics to study the brain.