Researchers know that alcoholics tend to have poorer neurocognitive functioning, including decision making, than non-alcoholics do. Less is known, however, about alcohol's effects on decision-making capabilities among people who drink heavily but are not considered alcoholics. A new study has found that binge drinking can lead to poor decision making among college students, independent of impulsivity.
"Alcoholics tend to exhibit poorer decision making such as preferring short-term rewards, when these are coupled to long-term losses, instead of choosing options which go together with long-term rewards," said Anna E. Goudriaan, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam and corresponding author for the study.
These choices tend to reflect more serious problems with executive functioning, added Jenny Larkins, a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Missouri. "Executive functioning involves skills such as planning for the future, abstract reasoning, inhibiting or delaying responses, initiating behavior, doing two things at once, and shifting between two activities in a flexible way," she said.
"There are not a lot of studies that focus on the effects of heavy alcohol use in people who are not addicted to alcohol," said Goudriaan. "However, it seemed logical ... that heavy alcohol would impact their decision making, and we targeted young adults since they tend to drink the most, and binge drink the most. We specifically targeted binge drinking, since some animal studies suggest that it is deleterious for brain functioning."
Researchers examined 200 participants in an ongoing student-health study at the University of Missouri-Columbia. They formed four subgroups (n=50, 50% male) according to estimated binge-drinking trajectories during pre-college through to second year: low-binge drinkers; stable moderate-binge drinkers; increasing binge drinkers; and stable high-binge drinkers. Study authors also gathered decision-making and impulsivity measures, Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) results, and multiple indicators of heavy alcohol use.
Note: The Iowa Gambling Task is a computer card game in which four decks of cards are presented on the screen. The participant must choose a card from one of the four decks: each time they choose a card they will "win" money, but every so often, choosing a card will cause them to "lose" money. The goal of the game is to win as much money as possible. Decks A and B have a total penalty of $1250 for every ten cards; C and D have a total penalty of $250 for every ten cards). Thus, A and B are "bad decks," and C and D are "good decks."
"We found that stable high-binge drinking, starting at a pre-college age, is related to diminished decision-making abilities, as exemplified by preferring short-term rewards over long-term losses," said Goudriaan. "In other words, this study shows that even in a group of "healthy" college students who are not alcoholics, heavy alcohol use is related to diminished decision making abilities or disadvantageous cognitive functions."
"It is also interesting to note that neither externalizing psychopathology nor impulsivity as measured by questionnaires was associated with impaired IGT performance," observed Larkins. "However, this finding ... should be tested in other college student samples as it could be due to the sampling strategy employed."
"Based on these results and those from several other studies," said Larkins, "adolescence appears to be a time of exquisite sensitivity to the effects of alcohol on the brain. For these reasons, parents and clinicians must be especially diligent in monitoring young people to prevent alcohol abuse, and further attention to treatment programs designed for adolescents is warranted."
Results are published in the June issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
The study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Materials provided by Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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