Academics at Northumbria University have demonstrated a link between teenage binge drinking and damage to prospective memory.

Prospective memory is an important aspect of day-to-day memory function and is defined as the cognitive ability to remember to carry out an activity at some future point in time. Examples include remembering to attend an appointment at the dentist or to carry out a task such as remembering to pay a bill on time.

In the first study to examine the effects of binge drinking on prospective memory in teenagers, researchers tested the ability of fifty students from universities in North East England to remember a series of tasks. The students were shown a 10-minute video clip of a shopping district in Scarborough and were asked to remember to carry out a series of instructions when they saw specified locations.

Twenty-one of the students were categorized as binge drinkers. For women, this meant that they drank the equivalent of six standard glasses of wine or, for men, six pints of beer, two or more times a week. The remaining 29 participants were categorised as non-binge drinkers.

The study found that the binge drinkers recalled significantly fewer location-action/items combinations than their non-binging peers. These findings were observed after screening out teenagers who used other substances (such as ecstasy, cannabis and tobacco), those who had used alcohol within the last 48 hours, and after observing no between-group differences on age, anxiety and depression.

Dr Tom Heffernan led the study. He comments: “The mechanisms that may underlie such everyday cognitive impairments associated with binge drinking are not yet fully understood. It is possible that excessive drinking may interfere with the neuro-cognitive development of the teenage brain.

“It is important to realise that there no ‘safe’ levels of drinking set for teenagers and that the amount of bingeing revealed in the present study represents a high volume of alcohol intake across the two to three bingeing sessions which were the norm in the group. The high levels of drinking amongst teenagers is particularly worrying given the mounting evidence that the teenage brain is still maturing and undergoing significant development in terms of its structure and function.

“Given that teenagers are inexperienced drinkers who have both a low tolerance for alcohol and immature neuro-physiological systems, they should therefore be drinking much less than the ‘safe’ levels recommended for adults.”

Intriguingly, one other finding of the study is that binge drinkers do not perceive themselves to have a poor memory, suggesting teenagers do not appreciate the damage that is being done.