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Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 00:55 GMT 01:55 UK
Binge drinking causes rapid damage
Beer in supermarket
The effects of alcohol are not fully understood
People who binge drink could be causing rapid damage to their brain cells, research suggests.

The finding could have implications for the growing legions of young people in the UK who binge drink.

It has commonly been thought that brain damage, or neurodegeneration, occurs not when a person is drunk, but over a longer period when the brain has to cope with alcohol withdrawal.

However, a new study on rats has shown that just two days of binge drinking is enough to cause damage to an area of the brain called the olfactory bulb, which is responsible for smell.

Damage to other regions of the brain occurred after just four days of binge drinking.

'Implications' for students

Researcher Dr Fulton Crews, director of the Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina, said most previous research had focused on the long term effect of alcohol.

He said the study may show "an important early process in the progression from experimentation with alcohol to addiction".

People still think that alcohol damage only affects middle aged people when their liver drops out

Andrew McNeill
Institute of Alcohol Studies
Professor Michael Collins, of Loyola University Chicago, said: "Certainly this has implications for a college student contemplating a weekend of binge drinking.

"It is possible that neuronal degeneration after a couple of days of heavy intoxication in the rat might translate to the human drinker who is not even a chronic alcohol abuser."

He added that there was no firm proof of this yet and brain imaging was needed to determine whether short-term binges would permanently damage neurons in humans.

Drinkers 'unaware'

Previous research by a team from the same university found that adolescent brains may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol.

The results suggested that binge drinking during adolescence leads the brain to respond more sensitively to alcohol in the future.

Andrew McNeill, co-director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, told BBC News Online that many people were still unaware of the potential damage of alcohol.

He said: "People still think that alcohol damage only affects middle aged people when their liver drops out.

"The fact that it can also cause brain damage, and that you don't have to be an alcoholic for this to happen is not something that people fully understand."

Brain chemistry

Separate research has found that children of alcoholics tend to exhibit attention deficit disorder, hyperactive tendencies and unruly behaviour.

These children are also more likely to develop significant alcohol problems, such as abuse or dependence.

Scientists believe these characteristics may be due to underlying differences in brain chemistry and physiology, which may be due to genetic or environmental factors.

The research is published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

See also:

08 Apr 02 | Health
Alarm over teenage binge drinking
11 Dec 01 | Health
Female binge drinking confirmed
14 Aug 00 | Health
Binge drinking 'can damage brain'
06 Dec 00 | Health
Alcohol 'improves IQ'
16 Jan 02 | Health
Alcohol 'damages' foetal brain
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