Alcohol is the most commonly used substance among students in grades eight to 12. Binge-drinking effects are particularly concerning, although it is unclear whether and how much it affects neurocognitive performance. Adolescence is both a time of rapid neurobiological changes and of the initiation of drinking.
This study looked at two questions: first, whether moderate, binge, or extreme-binge drinking in adolescence had an impact on later performance in tests of verbal learning and memory (VLM); and second, whether the amount of alcohol consumed is associated with specific changes in learning and memory during six years of adolescence.
‘The amount of alcohol consumed during adolescence adversely affects verbal learning and memory (VLM) performance in a dose-dependent manner.’
Researchers examined participants who were known to begin drinking during adolescence (n=112), giving them VLM assessments at two different times: first, prior to the onset of drinking (at age 12-16); and second, approximately six years later. Participants were grouped, based on their alcohol involvement at follow-up, as moderate (less than four drinks per occasion), binge (more than five drinks per occasion), or extreme-binge (10+ drinks per occasion) drinkers.
Results showed that the amount of alcohol consumed during adolescence adversely affected VLM performance in a dose-dependent manner. The acquisition of new verbal information seemed to be particularly affected, especially for the heaviest drinkers. While there were no gender differences in VLM performance, the authors note that the extreme-binge group had roughly 50% more boys than the moderate and binge groups, which is consistent with data showing that high-school boys are up to three times more likely to be extreme-binge drinkers.