A new study on young Spanish university students has shown that binge drinkers expend more attentional effort to complete a given task, and that they also have problems differentiating between relevant and irrelevant information.
Binge drinkers are defined as males who drink five or more standard alcohol drinks, and females who drink four or more, on one occasion and within a two-hour interval.
Alberto Crego, a doctoral student at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, used the event-related potential (ERP) technique to examine 95 first-year university students (48 men, 47 women), 42 of them binge drinkers (BD) and 53 "control" students (who did not drink enough to raise concerns).
An ERP is the electrophysiological brain response to internal or external stimuli.
Crego's team paid particular attention to the N2 (negative waveform) and P3 (positive waveform) components of ERPs, known to be particularly sensitive to alcohol, that were elicited in response to a visual working memory task.
"We found that healthy young university students - meaning those with no alcohol-use disorder, alcohol dependence or associated psychiatric disorders - who engaged in binge drinking showed anomalies during the execution of a task involving visual working memory, despite correct execution of the task, in comparison with young non binge drinkers. They required greater attentional processing during the task in order to carry it out correctly," said Crego.
The researcher further revealed that the same students also had difficulties differentiating between relevant and irrelevant stimuli.
"They displayed less efficiency in distributing attentional and working memory resources between the different information presented in a working memory task. These results collectively suggest that impaired brain function may occur at an early age in binge drinkers during attentional and working memory processing, even in young university students without alcohol-use disorders," said Crego.
Crego cautioned that the attentional and working memory deficits exhibited by chronic alcoholics are indicative of the problems that may develop with binge drinking.
"Healthy adolescents and young people who partake in intermittent consumption of large amounts of alcohol - otherwise known as binge drinking - even only once or twice a week, and who do not display chronic alcohol consumption or alcohol dependence may nonetheless suffer alterations at the electrophysiological level in attentional and working memory processing," the researcher said.
A research article describing the study, set for publication in the November issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, is currently available at Early View.