Binge drinking is prevalent in adolescence and raises concerns about its effect on adolescent brain development. A study from the University of California San Diego and Stanford University sought to examine its effect on spatial working memory (SWM) of teenage girls and boys who binge drink.

The results will be published in the October 2011 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

The study found both teenage girl and boy binge drinkers had less brain activation in several brain regions than non-drinking teens when doing SWM tasks. However, female brains are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of binge drinking. 

Susan Tapert, professor at University of California San Diego and the corresponding author for the study, offered several explanations that can account for this gender difference:

- Female brains develop one to two years earlier than male brains, so assuming male and female teens start drinking at the same age, female brains are further along the development stage

- Females are more affected by alcohol because they have slower rates of metabolism, higher body fat ratios, and lower body weight

- Gender differences in hormonal levels and alcohol-induced hormone fluctuations

SWM affects activities like sports, driving, and finding directions.

Generally speaking, working memory (WM) refers to using information that's stored in the mind (as opposed to seen or heard externally) and is critical to logical thinking and reasoning, said Tapert.

Tapert emphasized that although teenagers may physically appear grownup, their brains are still developing, particularly in the frontal regions that are associated with SWM.

Long after a young person - middle school to college - enjoys acute recovery from a hang-over, this study shows that risk to cognitive and brain functions endures, said Edith V. Sullivan of Stanford University.

The study recruited 27 binge drinking teenage males, 13 binge drinking teenage females, 31 non-drinking teenage males, and 24 non-drinking teenage females in the San Diego-area public schools.