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A new study in rats indicates that it only takes a few months of intermittent binge drinking to damage your brain. The brain damage includes signs of cognitive impairment that swiftly reduce one’s capacity to control how much alcohol they take in, the researchers said.The binge drinking specifically injured a group of brain cells that control the rat’s ability to make decisions. Between drinking binges, these brain cells were unusually active. And the more active they were, the more the rats drank on their next binge.
These active brain cells detach this regulation centre from the rest of the brain, making the rats more impulse-prone.
These cells could be what drives the development of social drinking into binge drinking and dependence, and eventually, alcoholism. The study, published today, Oct. 15, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could lead to new treatments and tests for alcoholism and other addictions.
“This research is giving us a window into the early development of the addiction process,” study researcher George Koob, of the Scripps Research Institute, said in a statement.
The rats were allowed to drink three days a week. First they only drank modestly, but eventually they start binging and within six weeks, they end up consuming more than rats that had constant access to alcohol.
“It’s like a lot of things in life that the brain perceives as good — if it loses access to it, you feel bad, you get into a negative emotional state, say a little bit frustrated, and so you take more the next time you have access,” said study researcher Oliver George.
In tests conducted a few weeks later, during “dry” intervals between drinking bouts, the binge drinking rats scored poorly on measures of working memory, an essential element of executive control. Tests of their brain tissue also revealed that during these withdrawal periods — when the animals would have been expected to be craving alcohol — the prefrontal cortex seemed relatively disconnected from the structures it is meant to regulate, such as the emotion-related amygdala.
“We normally see such changes in the brains of humans or other animals that are highly dependent on alcohol, but here we found these changes in the rats after only a few months of intermittent alcohol use,” said Dr. George.
Luckily, this impairment dropped off after about two weeks of abstinence from alcohol, but returns if they drink again.
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