Valdecillas Study concludes that Binge Drinking Is Associated with Alterations in Executive Functions

21 de November de 2016
The cognitive disorder unit of Valdecilla Hospital, under the direction of Pascual Sánchez-Juan, neurologist of Marques de Valdecilla University Hospital and researcher at IDIVAL, has developed a study to evaluate the effects of binge drinking associated with alterations of executive functions.

In our analysis we observed that the students who binge drink obtained worse results in the (executive function test ) TMT B test, which is a task that measures executive functions focusing on attention and mental flexibility. 

This study is the major of these characteristics up to the moment and it has been published in the magazine Plos One. The study includes university students enrolled at Escuelas Universitarias Gimbernat-Cantabria, affiliated with the University of Cantabria.   

The final sample included 206 individuals, with a mean age of 19,55 ± 2,39 years, of which 67,5% were women. Participants were classified as binge drinkers (BD) those who consumed 5 or more alcoholic drinks in the space of two hours (4 for females) in an average month and non binge drinkers (non-BD).

The study evaluated the memory and executive functions using a series of validated cognitive tests and it has been compared binge drinkers and non binge drinkers. Using Student's t-distribution the reserch studied the association between cognitive tests and Binge Drinkers patterns. Multivariate analyses were carried out via multiple linear regression. 47,6% of the students were found to be BD.


48% of the students were binge drinkers with a starting age of alcohol consumption of 15 years. Students who binge drink performed worse in the TMT B, carrying out the test on average six seconds slower than those who do not binge drink.
Research shows that a statistically significant inverse correlation (Pearson's r2 = -0.192; p = 0.007) between TMT B and starting age of alcohol consumption. That is, the earlier the students started to drink alcohol, the longer they took to do the tests, reflecting a lesser degree of cognitive flexibility.

Based on the results obtained by this study and previous studies, it can be interpreted that binge drinking in young people would have a predominant effect upon executive functions, particularly cognitive flexibility. The area of the brain which most specifically correlates with mental flexibility is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex as Dr. Sanchez Juan has said. These data concur with the hypothesis that alcohol would affect those areas that mature later on in human development, as the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to fully develop. Studies carried out on animals indicate that BD implies greater damage to the central nervous system than regular consumption. Likewise, greater neuropsychological repercussions have been described in BD, as compared to regular drinkers.

Accumulative effect

These data suggest that the damage caused by heavy intermittent alcohol consumption could have an accumulative effect at an early age; even during relatively short time periods, as our population had only been consuming alcohol for 4.22 years on average.

This neuropsychological assessment, is the largest sample of these characteristics that has been reported to date and it has been elaborated by cognitive disorder unit of Valdecilla Hospital and the Escuelas Universitarias Gimbernat-Cantabria. Dr. Sanchez-Juan has said these results should be taken as a wake-up call in terms of the permissiveness that some societies show regarding adolescent alcohol consumption.