Long after the hangover wears off, having too many drinks, or binge drinking, can damage still-developing teenager's working memory - the ability to perceive their environment or their surroundings, according to a recent study published in the web version of the Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research journal.

California researchers say female teens may be more vulnerable to these negative effects of excess alcohol consumption.

Even though adolescents might physically appear grown up, their brains are continuing to significantly develop and mature, particularly in frontal brain regions that are associated with higher-level thoughts, like planning and organization, Susan F. Tapert, acting chief of psychology at the VA San Diego Healthcare System, said in a university news release.

Heavy alcohol use could interrupt normal brain cell growth during adolescence, particularly in these frontal brain regions, which could interfere with teens' ability to perform in school and sports, and could have long-lasting effects, even months after the teen uses, said Tapert, who is also a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.

According to the news release, drinking-related impairments in spatial working memory can affect the following:

  • Driving
  • Figural reasoning, such as geometry
  • Sports, specifically remembering and enacting complex plays
  • Reading maps
  • Remembering directions or routes

In the study, researchers compared the performance of 40 teenage binge drinkers and 55 non-drinking teenagers in neuropsychological testing, substance use interviews, and tested brain activity by using brain scans through a functional MRI.

The study found that teen girls who were heavy drinkers had less brain activation in several areas of their brains than other girls their age who didn't drink. Meanwhile, teenage boys who drank excessively displayed some abnormality compared to their abstaining peers, but the difference between male drinkers and non-drinkers was less than among girls.