Increased cortical activity in binge drinkers measured by fMRI

In contrast to chronic alcoholism, binge drinking involves cycling between periods of abstinence and periods of massive alcohol intake. It has been estimated to affect approximately 40% of 18- to 24-year-olds in Europe. The common definition of binge drinking is the consumption of five or more alcoholic drinks (four or more for women) on one occasion within a two-hour interval, and this occurring at least once in the previous two weeks Recent studies have focused on elucidating the neural effects of binge drinking and have mostly shown that while binge drinking may not induce behavioral changes that are as serious as chronic alcoholism, it can provoke considerable cerebral changes comparable to those in cases of alcohol dependence. 


In a recent study (S. Campanella et al. PLOS One 2013; 8: 4: e62260), a group of Belgian researchers examined whether, at equivalent behavioral performance levels, binge drinkers exhibited increased neural activity while performing simple cognitive tasks. Thirty-two participants (16 binge drinkers and 16 matched controls) were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while performing an n-back working memory task. In the control zero-back (N0) condition, subjects were required to press a button with the right hand when the number ‘‘20” was displayed. In the two-back (N2) condition, subjects had to press a button when the displayed number was identical to the number shown two trials before. FMRI analyses showed a higher bilateral activity in the pre-supplementary motor area in binge drinkers than in matched controls, even though behavioral performances were similar. Moreover, binge drinkers showed specific positive correlations between the number of alcohol doses consumed per occasion and higher activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. There was also a correlation between the number of drinking occasions per week and higher activity in the cerebellum, thalamus and insula while performing the N2 memory task. The researchers concluded that binge alcohol consumption may lead to possible compensatory cerebral changes in binge drinkers that facilitate normal behavioral performance. These changes in cerebral responses may however be considered as vulnerability factors for developing adult substance use disorders.