It is Friday afternoon and the party is just getting started. The alcohol starts flowing. The weekend whirls by in a blur – you know you had a good time but cannot remember much. Trouble is, the memory blur may actually not just last the weekend, but last a life time, especially if you’re still a teenager.
Several studies have shown teenage binge drinkers end up with memory difficulties and hippocampal shrinkage.
Binge drinking busts brain cells
The memory blur associated with binge drinking is caused by brain cells being out of order, following a dousing with alcohol. But, up until now, it has been believed that most of the cells sober up and move on, after a day or two.
But the sobering up, seems to apply only to normal brain cells. Stem cells aren’t quite as resilient and tend to succumb to the alcohol soaking.
Brain stem cells are few and far between
For a long time, it was believed that the brain cells you were born with, were it, and as you aged the supply dwindled, culminating in a senile fog.
But in 1998, it was discovered that a specific area of the brain, known as the hippocampus, had a supply of neuronal stem cells, giving it the capacity to create new neurons (neurogenesis). The hippocampus plays a big role in forming memories, so this built in spare capacity can come in quite handy.
Teenagers have the biggest supply of these neuronal stem cells.
Stem cells don’t “do” alcohol
Teenage monkeys, like teenage humans, enjoy alcoholic binges.
So researchers at Scripps Research Institute created a little bit of monkey heaven, for some teenage monkeys. The monkeys were given access to an alcoholic fruit juice for an hour a day. They readily took advantage of the free booze offer and drank enough to be visibly intoxicated.
The brains of the binge drinkers were compared with the brain’s of some fruit juice only monkeys a couple of months later.
There were BIG brain changes in the imbibing monkeys. Even when the alcohol supply was cut off, their brain’s remained altered, leaving them struggling to learn and remember.
The brain changes all revolved around the stem cells in the hippocampus – essentially, they were gone !
The brain bank account closed
The loss of neuronal stem cells is serious.
The brain can no longer make any withdrawals to replace, patch up the neuronal supply in the hippocampus. You are stuck with what you’ve got – for the rest of your life.
To think smart don’t “do” alcohol
A pint of beer, a glass of wine or champagne is not going to damage your neuronal stem cells. The problem comes when you drink yourself into a stupor and soak the brain cells in alcohol.
Closing the brain bank account permanently, is a big price to pay for a few hours of “imagined bliss”. After all, you can’t even be sure you were really “happy” because you can’t remember anyway. The hangover, is definitely not bliss.
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