The prefrontal cortex, which acts as neural support for the executive processes, is particularly affected by alcohol; however, not all studies are in agreement about how binge drinking (BD) affects executive functioning. It is possible that inconcsistent findings could be due to the history of alcohol consumption, that is, at what age the subjects started drinking.
A study assessed the performance on executive functioning tasks of 13-19-year-old adolescents according to their pattern of alcohol consumption. The authors hypothesised that BD adolescents would perform worse than non-BD subjects in tasks that evaluate executive functions, and these differences will increase depending on how long they have been consuming alcohol.
322 students (48.14% females; age range 13-22 years; mean aged 16.7 ± 2.59) participated in the study; all of them had begun drinking at the age of 13 years. Participant were divided into three groups, according to their age range (13-15, 16- 18, and 19-22 years) and divided according to their pattern of alcohol consumption (BD and control groups). Then, the subjects were evaluated with neuropsychological tasks that assess executive functions like working memory, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, or self-control among others. The entire sample showed a normal improvement in their executive performance, but this improvement was more stable and robust in the control group. Regarding the executive performance among age groups, control subjects only obtained better results than BDs in the 19-22-year-old range, whereas the performance was quite similar at younger ages.
Considering that all the BD subjects started drinking at the same age (13 years old), it is possible that a kind of compensation mechanism exists in the adolescent brain which allows them to reach a normal performance in executive tasks. This theoretical mechanism would depend upon neuronal labor, which could lose efficacy over time with further alcohol ingestion. This process would account for the differences in neuropsychological performance, which were only observed in older students with a longer history of alcohol consumption.
Source: Alcohol Binge Drinking and Executive Functioning during Adolescent Brain Development. Gil-Hernandez S, Mateos P, Porras C, Garcia-Gomez R, Navarro E, Garcia- Moreno LM. Front Psychol. 2017 Oct 4;8:1638. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01638. eCollection 2017.