Fraternity brothers and sorority sisters pay close attention: researchers warn that just a few months of binge drinking can damage the brain and turn social drinkers into alcoholics.

Researchers found that consuming a small amount of alcohol every day is significantly safer than to intermittent binge drinking.

The latest study, published Oct. 15 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, wanted to understand how the brain adapts to drinking patters.

Researchers from the Scripps Research Institute exposed a group of "binge drinking" laboratory rats to alcohol for three days a week and exposed another group of rats to a continuous supply of alcohol.

After just six weeks, not only did the "binge-drinking" rats consume significantly more alcohol than rats with a continuous supply of booze, the brains of binge-drinking rats showed signs of impairment in cognitive function similar to that of recognized alcoholics after only a few months.

Lead researcher Olivier George, a senior staff scientist at The Scripps Research Institute, and his team found that the brain damage in the binge drinking rats was associated with a small group of brain cells or neurons that inhibit "executive control" functions in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Researchers explained that these brain cells in binge-drinking rats were "unusually active" in the time between drinking binges. Furthermore, the more active these neurons were, the more rats drank when they next had access to alcohol.

"It's like a lot of things in life that the brain perceives as good - if it loses access to it, you feel bad, you get into a negative emotional state, a little bit frustrated, and so you take more the next time you have access," George said in a university news release. "We suspect that this very early adaptation of the brain to intermittent alcohol use helps drive the transition from ordinary social drinking to binge drinking and dependence."

Researchers found that tests conducted during "dry" intervals between drinking sessions showed that binge-drinking rats scored poorly on memory, and also struggled with emotions.

"We normally see such changes in the brains of humans or other animals that are highly dependent on alcohol - but here we found these changes in the rats after only a few months of intermittent alcohol use," George said.

He said that the brain impairments were not seen in the rats that drank every day and that their alcohol intake remained stable.

"They just drink a bit like the French way, the equivalent of a couple of glasses of wine every day, and they're fine," George said. "They don't escalate."

Thankfully, in just two weeks of abstinence, the impairments seen in the binge-drinking rats went away. However, researchers warned that the impairment returned when the rats drank again.

"One can see the vicious cycle here," George said. "They drink to restore normal prefrontal function, but ultimately that leads to even greater impairment."

Researchers said that the finding is especially important to young people.

"This process would be of particular concern in adolescents and young adults, in whom the prefrontal cortex isn't even fully developed," researcher George Koob, of the research institute's Pearson Center for Alcoholism and Addiction Research, said in a statement.

Researchers are now investigating the brain's over-production of a stress neurotransmitter called CRF during abstinence in alcohol-dependent rats and possibly human alcoholics. They say that abstinence triggers a floor of CRF in the central nucleus of the amygdala, which creates anxiety that typically can only be appeased by drinking again.

Researchers said that the latest findings may be used to produce CRF-blocking drugs that may one day help prevent alcohol dependence.