Hundreds of thousands of teenagers start university every year – with many celebrating leaving home by downing cut-price beer and spirits.
But the heavy drinking at freshers’ week parties could lead to permanent brain damage, scientists said yesterday.
In a bombshell warning, scientists said many first-year students who have already started drinking heavily are showing signs of brain damage similar to those seen in chronic alcoholics.
Scientists fear binge drinking may be disrupting the still-developing brains of those in their late teens and early 20s.
The researchers monitored electrical activity in the brains of 80 students starting at a Spanish university.
They found changes in brainwave patterns in those classed as binge-drinkers that looked similar to early signs of brain damage.
Lead scientist Dr Eduardo Lopez-Caneda, from the University of Minho in Portugal, said: ‘These features might be down to the particularly harmful effects of alcohol on young brains that are still in development.’
Binge drinking was classed as having five alcoholic drinks in two hours for men, and four for women. Students who had participated in at least one such heavy drinking session in the previous month were classified as binge drinkers.
They were compared with ‘non-bingers’, who claimed they had never over-indulged.
Drinking the amount required to meet the bingeing definition would ‘not equate to a particularly heavy night’ for many students, said the researchers, whose findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.
Previous studies have linked binge-drinking to impaired mental performance, poor academic achievement and risky sexual behaviour. Dr Lopez-Caneda said: ‘A number of studies have assessed the effects of binge drinking in young adults during different tasks involving cognitive processes such as attention or working memory. However, there are hardly any studies assessing if the brains of binge drinkers show differences when they are at rest, and not focused on a task.’
The students had an average age of 18 and attended Complutense University in Madrid.
Electrodes were attached to their scalps to take electroencephalogram recordings of electrical activity in various parts of their brains while at rest.
In binge drinkers, significantly higher levels of beta and theta brainwaves were identified in the right temporal and bilateral occipital cortex regions.
Very similar brainwave patterns have previously been seen in adult chronic alcoholics, the scientists noted. The changes may indicate a reduced ability to respond to external stimuli and potential problems with processing information, they added.
Dr Lopez-Caneda said: ‘It would be a positive outcome if educational and health institutions used these results to try to reduce alcohol consumption in risky drinkers.’
Dr James Nicholls, director of research at the charity Alcohol Research UK, said: ‘It remains the case that binge drinking carries a number of health risks for people of any age, and we would recommend that all drinkers take note of the chief medical officer’s guidelines for low-risk drinking, even during freshers’ week.’