The Grinch That Stole Brain Cells

Neuroscience and Neurology CategoryLet’s Start with Rats

With visions of hangovers dancing in many readers’ minds (and brains), and in the minds of whoever saw them doing what people do when they are intoxicated (or saw it on; I thought I’d bring your attention to some rats. Science is learning more about why alcoholics are able to stay in denial, and why anyone should be afraid of bingeing.

Like rats. Perfectly sober rats that have binged on alcohol (despite being under twenty-one) have trouble adapting to changes in their environment. You know that underwater platform experiment? It’s the one where the rat has to find a platform to stand on so he won’t drown? Once the rat finds the platform, he won’t drown.

But if you move the platform, the rats have to explore a bit in order to find the new location, and not drown. Unfortunately for ex-bingers, this is not so easy. They swim around and around in the area where the platform was, and they drown… unless the rat has a union card, the scientist is feeling compassionate, or PETA invades in the nick of time.

Remember, I’m not talking about rats that have recently gone into recovery. These rats appear to have permanent changes in their brains. The hippocampus is damaged by the neurotoxic effect of alcohol. In human brains, the cingulate cortex shows effects of inflammation. And the pre-orbital cortex of the human brain is affected. Now we’re talking about a diminished forethought.

According to an op ed by a psychiatrist, published in the New York Times, “… heavy binge-drinking in rats diminishes the genesis of nerve cells, shrinks the development of the branchlike connections between brain cells and contributes to neuronal cell death. The binges activate an inflammatory response in rat brains rather than a pure regrowth of normal neuronal cells. Even after longstanding sobriety this inflammatory response translates into a tendency to stay the course; a diminished capacity for relearning, and maladaptive decision-making” (Steinberg, P., 2007).

Do you mind if I repeat part of that? “… a tendency to stay the course; a diminished capacity for relearning, and maladaptive decision-making.” Sound like anyone you know?… someone who has done a lot of youthful bingeing?

Me neither.

Not Just for Rats

The research is not just on rats. Binge drinking college students (not just alcoholics) have cognitive problems, particularly regarding decision making. This means choosing short-term rewards at the cost of long-term costs that are out of proportion to the rewards. But I thought our society was already based on that. You mean it’s going to get worse?! And I’m not talking about overt psychopathology or poor impulse control. I’m talking about bad decisions. That is, not knowing better.

Binge drinking in adolescence or college is associated with more social exclusion and other adverse events in adulthood (British Medical Journal, 2007). Is this because of low-grade cognitive impairment making the person less valuable as a friend or associate? I’d guess yes, regardless of whether there were pre-existing problems that contributed to the binge drinking in the first place.

The problem of alcohol abuse on college campuses is well documented. It is eroding our future leaders and innovators. The less forethought our people have, the more they won’t think in advance. Think of that!

But seriously, at least we are upgrading our vocabulary. Back in the day, someone would go on a bender. Now they are suffering from (or dying from) alcohol toxicity. That gets right to the point.

We have some other changes to the lexicon along these lines. Instead of dirty old man, it’s pedophile or sexual harassment. Instead of manifest destiny, its war crimes or genocide. I like explicit language. Let’s leave the euphemisms to the sociopaths and get down to business.

Anyone remember those black, nasty lungs they would show the kids to make smoking look bad? Now we need some kind of models or scans of brains to do that for alcohol and other drugs. Can you think of any prominant people who should volunteer their brain scan to help kids say no to drugs?

Me neither.

Dawn of the Brain Damaged

But this could be the tip of the iceberg…or evidence of the iceberg. Reports are suggesting that there is a pandemic of congenital developmental disorders caused by industrial chemicals that pervade our environment (Grandjean, P. & Landrigan, P., 2006). This may be responsible for high levels of autistic disorders, ADD, immune disorders, fibromyalgia and many other problems. I hope we aren’t going the way of the Roman Empire. I know that there are many highly-gifted people with neurodevelopmental disorders who have contributed to society. I still think we are in real trouble, and that much more must be done to save a lot of people from a lot of brain damage.


Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (2007, May 25). Binge drinking leads to neurocognitive deficits among college students. ScienceDaily.

British Medical Journal (2007, September 10). Teen binge drinkers risk alcoholism and social exclusion as adults. ScienceDaily.

Grandjean, P. & Landrigan, P. (2006). Developmental neurotoxicity of industrial chemicals. Lancet (online edition; Nov 8th).

Labour Environmental Alliance Society. (2006) Lancet underlines LEAS concern about toxins. Nov. 9.

Steinberg, P. (2007). The hangover that lasts. New York Times. December 29.

Viner, R. M. & Taylor, B. (2007). Adult outcomes of binge drinking in adolescence: Findings from a UK national birth cohort. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 61(10).

Robert A. Yourell, MA

Robert A. Yourell, MA, has extensive experience in the mental health and social services dating back to 1975. His training includes Ericksonian communication and hypnosis with John Grinder, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing with Francine Shapiro, PhD, Body Integrative Psychotherapy with Jack Rosenberg, PhD, and solution-focused psychotherapy. He provides free audio experiences on his site that include bilateral sound and Shimmering.
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