Binge drinking may harm learning, memory
May 16th, 2011
05:39 PM ET

Binge drinking may harm learning, memory

After a night of partying, it's not uncommon for college students to wake up with a fuzzy recollection of the evening’s events. But a new study suggests that binge drinking may impair memory in young people long after the hangover has worn off, perhaps because of damage to the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning.

In the study, which appears in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, researchers in Spain gave a series of simple language and memory tests to 122 college students between the ages of 18 and 20, roughly half of whom were self-identified binge drinkers. The other half also drank alcohol, but more moderately.

In the first test, for instance, the students read lists of words and then tried to recall as many of them as they could in increasingly difficult exercises. In another, they were told two stories and asked to recount them as accurately as possible.

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Binge drinkers performed more poorly than the other group in nearly all the word-based tests, even after the researchers controlled for complicating factors such as a family history of alcoholism, marijuana use, and mental disorders. Compared with their peers, the binge drinkers were more easily distracted by new information, recalled fewer words, and retained about 4 percent less of the information in the stories.

The study does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between binge drinking and memory impairment. It's possible, for instance, that students who struggle with learning and attention might be more prone to binge drink, rather than vice versa.

However, the researchers say, the findings do suggest a "clear association" between binge drinking and difficulty with tasks linked to particular brain regions, especially the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus is especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of alcohol, they write.

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Dr. Thomas Hicklin, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, says he hopes the study will make college students more aware of the not-so-obvious risks of binge drinking.

"This is an important topic and a multifaceted problem," says Hicklin, who counsels many students at the USC Health Care Clinic. "There's a lot of peer pressure when it comes to binge drinking, but students need to protect their brains."

If binge drinking does damage the hippocampus—as the study suggests—researchers aren’t certain whether the damage is permanent. "That has not been studied," Hicklin says.

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The study authors, who are based at the University of Santiago de Compostela, called for long-term studies that would follow groups of students before and after they started—and stopped—binge drinking regularly. Such studies would clarify the effects of heavy drinking on short-term memory as well as academic performance, they write.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011

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Filed under: Brain • Health.com

soundoff (662 Responses)
  1. DeePee

    Uhm, duh? How in the hell is this news?

    May 16, 2011 at 19:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Crawl back under your rock.

      May 17, 2011 at 10:04 | Report abuse |
  2. Pete

    Hmm, binge drinking makes you stuipd? It took the National media to reveal this? Go figure.

    May 16, 2011 at 19:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. NoRegrets

    I got about 2 sentences into this article before I was done reading– all I could think was, "who cares?!?!" Ok, so those college kids are damaging their memory. I was SO there and wouldn't change a thing. Really. I mean, the sun causes cancer. And drinkers live longer than non-drinkers (this from another study looking at social aspects of drinking and life expectancy). Just do what you wanna do.

    May 16, 2011 at 20:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Then why bother reading and commenting on the story?

      May 17, 2011 at 10:02 | Report abuse |
    • Stan DOffish

      I think his intention was to point out how stupid this article , and the study, are. A point lost on you Tom TOm the pooper's son.

      May 17, 2011 at 11:41 | Report abuse |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, aren't you special? Obviously, the real point of the article was lost on both of you, you moronic little dickfors.

      May 17, 2011 at 21:24 | Report abuse |
    • Rich

      It willhaunt you years later and it comes quicker than you think STUPID!!!!!!!

      January 26, 2013 at 20:28 | Report abuse |
    • Rich

      It will haunt you years later and it comes quicker than you think STUPID!!!!!!!

      January 26, 2013 at 20:29 | Report abuse |
  4. sam

    so binge drinking makes it harder for someone to brainwash us? someone pass me another bottle.

    May 16, 2011 at 20:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Trav0

      if by "brainwash us" you mean "impart knowledge and education" then yes.

      May 17, 2011 at 10:35 | Report abuse |
  5. PtttttttttttttttttH!

    Really ......No S**t....

    May 16, 2011 at 21:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Displeased

    The results of this study do seem obvious, but I'm curious if the damage to the hippocampus is permanent.

    May 16, 2011 at 21:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      That is a good question. I'd like to know the answer as well.

      May 17, 2011 at 10:03 | Report abuse |
    • TI-90

      They did not say the hippocampus is damaged. Another thing to think about, do you think the majority of students wanting to go to, med school for example drink as much as others. This study could just as well be showing students who are planning on attending post secondary education drink less, and these students who are probably smarter than others can remember more.

      May 17, 2011 at 13:48 | Report abuse |
    • SilentBoy741

      They could never do any testing on a drunk hippocampus. The PETA people would go absolutely ballistic. Besides, do you know how much booze it takes to get one of those things wasted? Take my word for it - Spring Break, 1996 - never again. Never agin.

      May 17, 2011 at 18:49 | Report abuse |
  7. Dano

    Way to put yet another fantastic headline out there, CNN. Keep up the good work.

    May 16, 2011 at 21:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Bobby

    Binge drinking may also lead to death by Alcohol poisoning..

    May 16, 2011 at 22:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Geoffrey Hamilton

      Death, bummer bro, that will really hurt your studies.

      May 17, 2011 at 09:53 | Report abuse |
  9. ma-oy

    i was just drinking when i stumbled upon this article... wait let me scroll up to refresh what i just read

    May 16, 2011 at 22:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Jack R

    Thank you Doctor Obvious

    May 16, 2011 at 22:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. travis fisher

    I forgot what i was going to wrtie too tired Too think i need a drink

    May 16, 2011 at 23:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Jeff

    why did you need a study to state the obvious !!

    May 16, 2011 at 23:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Captain_OWNARSHIP

    almost makes me wish i wasnt sitting here working my way through a fifth of Skyy.

    May 16, 2011 at 23:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Harry Peniswart

    I'm sure glad CNN cleared this one up for all of us. Until now I was under the impression binge drinking was quite healthly. Here's another piece of advice: Running over your foot with a lawnmower can cause permanent toenail damage.

    May 16, 2011 at 23:19 | Report abuse | Reply

    how did they find the most horrible looking people in one room?

    May 17, 2011 at 01:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • SilentBoy741

      Oddly enough, if you drink enough, they get better looking.

      May 17, 2011 at 18:51 | Report abuse |
  16. SAM

    Any drinking in any amount is BAD...........Not just for the drinker But Mostly FOR OTHERS...............

    May 17, 2011 at 04:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Palm Coast Guy

    And how much time and money did it take for these idiots to figure this one out? Oh, thats right, they already knew it from their binge drinking in college. That's why it took them 7 and 1/2 years to graduate.

    May 17, 2011 at 07:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • work hard, party hard

      Yeah you got that right. Here's to college, the best eight years of my life. $40,000 for student loans but the good times-priceless! I am working in the real world now. I don't regret a thing. People: you should get that stick up out of your a$$ and not take it so seriously. Life is fun. Learn what you can. Work hard but don't forget to enjoy yourself.

      May 17, 2011 at 13:04 | Report abuse |
  18. Conrad Shull

    Some prof and his grad students got a lot of extra beer money for this brilliant revelation. And, wow, they want more to keep "studying" this apparently here-to-fore unknown phenomenon.

    May 17, 2011 at 08:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Conrad Shull

    Wonder if I could get a paying gig with these "researchers" doing deep, embedded, undercover field work for them.

    May 17, 2011 at 08:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Bill

    Hey I loved college. However, I don't think we ever had a hippo on our campus. Wouldn't I remember something like that?

    May 17, 2011 at 09:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. IQ195

    That's a crock full of #$. I was a binge drinker at the colege level.(Not a good thing) Top of my class. 99.1 GPA. I was just bored stiff. That's why I did the drinking thing......... Do another few years of research.

    May 17, 2011 at 09:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KC

      Really??? You spelled "college" wrong... and GPA is not figured that way, so you haven't fooled anyone. You better go back to school–and stop drinking, although it may be too late!

      May 17, 2011 at 10:26 | Report abuse |
  22. Julie Labrouste

    Like binge drinking, apparently, swallowing a live hand-grenade may harm learning also. To study this further, 12 billion dollars have been allocated to see if we can say that swallowing a live hand-grenade CAN harm learning, with another 2.6 trillion in the budget next year to determine if swallowing a live hand-grenade DOES harm learning.

    May 17, 2011 at 09:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Stan DOffish

    From what I understand it also makes you incredibly LAZY and apt to do stupid studies like this one just to get ANY grade at all.

    Meanwhile there is a story about Iranian Bases in Venezuela if you all ever wake the FK up.

    May 17, 2011 at 11:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Jorge

    I've been learning stuff all my life. pre-school, grade school, college, seminars, field training, fair weather friends and users. It was harder to do when I was young, but it's starting to feel pretty pointless now. All that learning hasn't made me one bit happier, just more exploitable; so now, I binge drink every once in a while to kill off some of the useless knowledge, and to slow the process so that I can be blissfully ignorant enough to enjoy my frigging life.

    May 17, 2011 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Stan DOffish

      it's working!

      May 17, 2011 at 11:39 | Report abuse |
  25. JJMurray

    NEWS FLASH – Hitting yourself in the head with a hammer may harm learning, as might pounding your head against the wall, or smoking half a pound a marijuana a day. I guess the people who hand out money for people to do these studies haven't figured out any of that yet.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. gkors12

    Option 1: Go out on the weekends and have a great time making bad decisions.
    Option 2: Stay in playing World of Warcraft and retain 4% more information then the people who actually have fun.

    I'll take Option 1.

    May 17, 2011 at 13:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Max

      Amen, brother. You only live once. I feel sorry for people who grew up fully before age 18.

      May 17, 2011 at 14:16 | Report abuse |
  27. Denizen Kate

    Headline: Binge drinking may harm learning. Ya think?

    Someone got paid to do this study. Where can I get a gig like that? Okay, how about this: Alcohol kills brain cells. There. Now pay me.

    May 17, 2011 at 13:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Mikey

    This is so true. I woke up one morning after a late night of partying and didn't realize that I voted for Obama until it was too late. I know I wasn't the only that this happened to. Look at our country today.

    May 17, 2011 at 14:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Sue


    May 17, 2011 at 14:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. HeyZeus

    smoke sh!t instead, mon

    May 17, 2011 at 14:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Sarah in Texas

    "The study does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship between binge drinking and memory impairment. It's possible, for instance, that students who struggle with learning and attention might be more prone to binge drink, rather than vice versa."

    ...a key point to remember in every study and all research findings. Correlations are not cause:effect.

    May 17, 2011 at 14:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. comfortinprayer

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    May 17, 2011 at 15:08 | Report abuse | Reply
    • heh

      go back under your rock, christian freak...

      May 17, 2011 at 17:00 | Report abuse |
    • SilentBoy741

      Well, if these are the Last Days, then I'm totally trashing the room before I check out.

      May 17, 2011 at 18:57 | Report abuse |
  33. Tintala

    No KIDDING!?!?!?!??!?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! BINGE DRINKING IMPAIRS ........IMPAIRMENT< it's like saying tobacco impairs breathing..........


    May 17, 2011 at 16:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. anonymous

    I missed that party? But really... binge drinking harms learning? I suppose the next research project will demonstrate that drinking drain cleaner harms your ability to maintain empathy in relationships.

    May 17, 2011 at 16:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. HRPufnstuf

    Binge drinking may harm learning.

    Next week: Suicide may shorten life span.

    I'd like a million bucks of government money to fund a study. Better make that five million.

    May 17, 2011 at 17:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. mcmgr

    I am 57 now--and could have told you all this when I was 18!!!!!! Well--–DUH

    May 17, 2011 at 17:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. SilentBoy741

    What an insightful study. I can't wait for the results of the next one, where they determine if stabbing yourself in the eye could affect your vision..

    May 17, 2011 at 18:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Adelina

    It destroys character, too.

    May 17, 2011 at 19:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Burbank

    Duh! I wish I was getting paid handsomely to write this drivel like this CNN writer does! Smoking pot affects your learning ability too, messes up short term memory.Gosh, can I have a six figure income for saying that now? I didn't even have to get a degree to know that. Wow! How smart I am! I think I'll go have a couple of brews and another joint!

    May 17, 2011 at 20:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. erich2112x

    You needed a study to show this? All you had to do was ask.

    May 17, 2011 at 21:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Bones

    You mean to tell me that drinking is bad for you? No way.

    May 18, 2011 at 04:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. kite005

    Funny, I feel so much smarter while partaking, I'm sure damn near genius.

    May 18, 2011 at 06:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Researcher

    To everyone posting comments that are some variation of "Duh:"

    Just because something seems obviously true does not make it so. Folk wisdom is often wrong; the goal of science is to provide evidence for phenomena, so no matter how obvious this finding may seem to you, it is still important in that it is a controlled and statistically significant effect which paves the way for future research on the long-term effects of chronic alcohol abuse on memory.

    The effects of alcohol on the hippocampus are currently unknown, both in the short-term and the long-term. There is nothing "duh" about it. Also, if you don't even know what the hippocampus is, then no, you could not have "done this study yourself."

    May 18, 2011 at 07:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. RandomD

    Ok, I know many of you don't care but I do. I care because when i'm 60 I would like to remember my friend's name! And, why do these comments have to be so mean? Sure, everyone has their own oppinion but, maybe you should hold back just a tad. And yes, this does affect your memory and learning abilities! You wonder why drunk people get into car accidents? Because their reaction time is slower! So what does this tell you???

    May 18, 2011 at 21:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. flarnkingsgargle

    "Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?"

    Good book, check it out.

    May 18, 2011 at 22:39 | Report abuse | Reply
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    January 9, 2013 at 11:21 | Report abuse | Reply
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