1. Study suggests binge drinking in college may lower chances of landing a job after college

    October 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Friends of Tel Aviv University press release:

    Heavy drinking six times a month reduces the probability that a new college graduate will land a job by 10 percent, according to Tel Aviv University and Cornell University research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

    Previous studies were unable to determine the precise effect of alcohol consumption on first-time employment. But according to the new study, each individual episode of student binge-drinking during a month-long period lowers the odds of attaining full-time employment upon graduation by 1.4 percent.

    “The manner in which students drink appears to be more influential than how much they drink when it comes to predicting the likelihood of getting a job upon graduation,” says Prof. Peter Bamberger of TAU’s Coller School of Business Management and Cornell University, who co-authored the study with Prof. Samuel Bacharach of Cornell University; Prof. Mary Larimer and Prof. Irene Geisner, both of the University of Washington; Jacklyn Koopmann of Auburn University; Prof. Inbal Nahum-Shani of the University of Michigan; and Prof. Mo Wang of the University of Florida.

    “Binge-drinking” is defined as ingesting four or more alcoholic drinks within two hours by a woman and five or more alcoholic drinks within two hours by a man, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

    How often, not how much

    The research found that a non-binge pattern of drinking does not adversely impact job search results unless and until their drinking reaches binge levels.

    Data for the study was provided by 827 individuals who graduated in 2014, 2015, and 2016 from Cornell, the University of Washington, the University of Florida, and the University of Michigan.

    “A student who binge-drinks four times a month has a 6 percent lower probability of finding a job than a student who does not engage in similar drinking habits. Those students who drank heavily six times a month increased their unemployment probability to 10 percent,” says Prof. Bamberger.

    Funded by a $2.2 million grant from the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, the research is the first installment of a longitudinal study on how alcohol misuse affects the college-to-work transition. More than 16,000 individuals have been contacted as part of the five-year study.

    “This paper is consistent with the recent emphasis on the impact of drinking behavior on career transition from Cornell’s Smithers Institute,” said Prof. Bacharach. “It is in concert with the previous work we’ve done on retirement, and on-boarding [the entry and socialization of newcomers into an organization]. Most importantly, it is also consistent with the Smithers Institute’s continued programmatic interest in substance abuse not only in the workplace, but in the college community as well.”


  2. Young binge drinkers show altered brain activity

    September 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Researchers have studied the brain activity of young binge-drinking college students in Spain, and found distinctive changes in brain activity, which may indicate delayed brain development and be an early sign of brain damage.

    For many students, college involves a lot of socializing at parties and at bars, and alcohol is a common factor in these social environments. Excessive alcohol use, in the form of binge drinking, is extremely common among college students, and one study has estimated that as many as one third of young North Americans and Europeans binge drink.

    So, what defines binge drinking? The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes a binge as drinking five or more drinks for men and four or more for women within a two-hour period, and for many college students, these limits wouldn’t equate to a particularly heavy night. Previous research has linked binge drinking to a variety of negative consequences including neurocognitive deficits, poor academic performance, and risky sexual behavior.

    While numerous studies have shown that the brains of chronic alcoholics have altered brain activity, there is also evidence that bingeing can change adolescents’ brains. Eduardo López-Caneda, of the University of Minho in Portugal, investigates this phenomenon.

    “A number of studies have assessed the effects of binge drinking in young adults during different tasks involving cognitive processes such as attention or working memory,” says López-Caneda. “However, there are hardly any studies assessing if the brains of binge drinkers show differences when they are at rest, and not focused on a task.”

    In a recent study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, López-Caneda and colleagues set out to see if the resting brains of binge-drinking college students showed any differences compared with those of their non-bingeing counterparts.

    The researchers recruited first year college students from a university in Spain, and asked them to complete a questionnaire about their drinking habits. Students that had participated in at least one binge within the previous month were considered to be binge drinkers, whereas non-bingers had never binged before. By attaching electrodes to the students’ scalps, the scientists could assess electrical activity in various brain regions.

    Compared with the non-bingers, the binge drinkers demonstrated altered brain activity at rest. They showed significantly higher measurements of specific electrophysiological parameters, known as beta and theta oscillations, in brain regions called the right temporal lobe and bilateral occipital cortex.

    Surprisingly, previous studies have found very similar alterations in the brains of adult chronic alcoholics. While the young bingers in this study might occasionally consume alcohol to excess, they did not fit the criteria for alcoholism. So, what does this mean?

    The changes might indicate a decreased ability to respond to external stimuli and potential difficulties in information processing capacity in young binge drinkers, and may represent some of the first signs of alcohol-induced brain damage.

    The brains of adolescents are still developing, meaning that they might be more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol abuse. “These features might be down to the particularly harmful effects of alcohol on young brains that are still in development, perhaps by delaying neuromaturational processes,” says López-Caneda.

    The researchers stress that they need to carry out further studies to confirm if the features they have observed in these young binge drinkers are caused by their bingeing, and if their brain development might be impaired. However, the results suggest that bingeing has tangible effects on the young brain, comparable with some of those seen in chronic alcoholics. “It would be a positive outcome if educational and health institutions used these results to try to reduce alcohol consumption in risky drinkers,” says López-Caneda.


  3. What makes alcoholics drink? Research shows it’s more complex than supposed

    September 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology press release:

    What makes alcoholics drink? New research has found that in both men and women with alcohol dependence, the major factor predicting the amount of drinking seems to be a question of immediate mood. They found that suffering from long-term mental health problems did not affect alcohol consumption, with one important exception: men with a history of depression had a different drinking pattern than men without a history of depression; surprisingly those men were drinking less often than men who were not depressed.

    “This work once again shows that alcoholism is not a one-size-fits-all condition,” said lead researcher, Victor Karpyak (Mayo Clinic, MN, USA). “So the answer to the question of why alcoholics drink is probably that there is no single answer; this will probably have implications for how we diagnose and treat alcoholism.”

    The work, presented at the ECNP congress by researchers from the Mayo Clinic*, determined the alcohol consumption of 287 males and 156 females with alcohol dependence over the previous 90 days, using the accepted Time Line Follow Back method and standardized diagnostic assessment for life time presence of psychiatric disorders (PRISM); they were then able to associate this with whether the drinking coincided with a positive or negative emotional state (feeling “up” or “down”), and whether the individual had a history of anxiety, depression (MDD) or substance abuse.

    The results showed that alcohol dependent men tended to drink more alcohol per day than alcohol dependent women. As expected, alcohol consumption in both men and women was associated with feeling either up or down on a particular day, with no significant association with anxiety or substance use disorders. However, men with a history of major depressive disorder had fewer drinking days (p=0.0084), and fewer heavy drinking days (p=0.0214) than men who never a major depressive disorder.

    Victor Karpyak continued: “Research indicates that many people drink to enhance pleasant feelings, while other people drink to suppress negative moods, such as depression or anxiety. However, previous studies did not differentiate between state-dependent mood changes and the presence of clinically diagnosed anxiety or depressive disorders. The lack of such differentiation was likely among the reasons for controversial findings about the usefulness of antidepressants in treatment of alcoholics with comorbid depression.

    This work will need to be replicated and confirmed, but from what we see here, it means that the reasons why alcoholics drink depend on their background as well as the immediate circumstances. There is no single reason. And this means that there is probably no single treatment, so we will have to refine our diagnostic methods and tailor treatment to the individual. It also means that our treatment approach may differ depending on targeting different aspects of alcoholism (craving or consumption) and the alcoholic patient (i.e. man or a woman) with or without depression or anxiety history to allow really effective treatment.”

    Commenting, Professor Wim van den Brink (Professor of Psychiatry and Addiction at the Academic Medical Centre, University of Amsterdam) said:

    “This is indeed a very important issue. Patients with an alcohol use disorder often show a history of other disorders, including mood and anxiety disorders, they also often present with alcohol induced anxiety and mood disorders and finally the may report mood symptoms that do not meet criteria for a mood or anxiety disorder (due to a failure to meet the minimal number of criteria or a duration of less than two weeks). All these different conditions may influence current levels or patterns of drinking.

    The current study seems to show that the current presence of mood/anxiety symptoms is associated with more drinking in both male and female alcoholics, whereas a clinical history of major depression in male alcoholics is associated with lower current dinking levels. Although, the study does not provide a clear reason for this difference, it may have consequences for treatment. For example, antidepressant treatment of males with a history major depression may have no effect on drinking levels. However, these findings may also result from residual confounding, e.g. patients with a history of major depression might also be patients with a late age of onset of their alcohol use disorder and this type of alcohol use disorder is associated with a different pattern of drinking with more daily drinking and less heavy drinking days and less binging. More prospective studies are needed to resolve this important but complex clinical issue.”


  4. Eleven minutes of mindfulness training helps drinkers cut back

    September 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University College London press release:

    Brief training in mindfulness strategies could help heavy drinkers start to cut back on alcohol consumption, finds a new UCL study.

    After an 11-minute training session and encouragement to continue practising mindfulness — which involves focusing on what’s happening in the present moment — heavy drinkers drank less over the next week than people who were taught relaxation techniques, according to the study published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.

    “We found that a very brief, simple exercise in mindfulness can help drinkers cut back, and the benefits can be seen quite quickly,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Sunjeev Kamboj (UCL Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit).

    The researchers brought in 68 drinkers, who drink heavily but not to the point of having an alcohol use disorder.

    Half of them were trained to practise mindfulness, which teaches a heightened awareness of one’s feelings and bodily sensations, so that they pay attention to cravings instead of suppressing them. They were told that by noticing bodily sensations, they could tolerate them as temporary events without needing to act on them. The training was delivered through audio recordings, and only took 11 minutes. At the end of the training participants were encouraged to continue practising the techniques for the next week.

    The other half were taught relaxation strategies, chosen as a control condition that appeared to be just as credible as the mindfulness exercise for reducing alcohol use. The study was double-blind, meaning neither experimenters nor participants knew which strategy was being delivered.

    “We used a highly controlled experimental design, to ensure that any benefits of mindfulness training were not likely explained by people believing it was a better treatment,” said co-author Dr Tom Freeman (Senior fellow of the Society for the Study of Addiction), who was part of the research team while based at UCL.

    The mindfulness group drank 9.3 fewer units of alcohol (roughly equivalent to three pints of beer) in the following week compared to the week preceding the study, while there was no significant reduction in alcohol consumption among those who had learned relaxation techniques.

    “Practising mindfulness can make a person more aware of their tendency to respond reflexively to urges. By being more aware of their cravings, we think the study participants were able to bring intention back into the equation, instead of automatically reaching for the drink when they feel a craving,” Dr Kamboj said.

    Severe alcohol problems are often preceded by patterns of heavy drinking, so the researchers are hopeful that mindfulness could help to reduce drinking before more severe problems develop.

    “Some might think that mindfulness is something that takes a long time to learn properly, so we found it encouraging that limited training and limited encouragement could have a significant effect to reduce alcohol consumption,” said co-author Damla Irez (UCL Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology).

    “We’re hopeful that further studies will replicate our findings and provide more insight into how mindfulness training could be most effective in practice. Our team is also looking into how mindfulness might help people with other substance use problems,” said co-author Shirley Serfaty (UCL Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology).


  5. Telling people not to ‘down’ drinks could make them drink more

    September 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Exeter press release:

    Campaigns designed to stop young people “bolting” drinks can be ineffective and can even make them more likely to do it, new research suggests.

    Scientists from the University of Exeter and the University of Queensland examined reactions to a poster warning of the consequences of bolting (downing an alcoholic drink in one) and found it had no effect on people’s future intentions.

    And when a statement was added saying other people disapproved of bolting, study participants reported stronger intentions to bolt in the future.

    However, changing this to a message saying most people “do not bolt drinks on a night out” was effective.

    “Many young people overestimate the extent to which their peers both approve of and engage in risky drinking behaviours,” said study author Dr Joanne Smith, of the University of Exeter.

    “One way to tackle risky drinking is to try to correct these misperceptions through health campaigns, such as posters.

    “In our research, we wanted to explore what kinds of messages are more effective in changing people’s intentions to bolt.

    “Our results highlight the potentially harmful effects of exposure to what’s called an ‘injunctive norm’ — a message about the approval or disapproval of others.

    “Meanwhile, a ‘descriptive norm’ — telling people what others do rather than what they think — had a positive impact.”

    The study is published in the journal Addiction Research and Theory.

    Professor Charles Abraham, of the University of Exeter Medical School, said: “This demonstrates how careful we need to be in selecting the right message in campaigns, and evaluating them before wider dissemination, as poorly designed campaigns, however well-intentioned, can backfire.”

    The research consisted of three studies, in which volunteers (221 in total) saw the poster or did not, and then either received or did not receive messages about what their peers thought or how they behaved.

    In one study, some participants received an accurate message saying 70% of their peers “disapprove of bolting,” and in another some received an accurate message saying 65% of their peers “do not bolt drinks on a night out.”

    They all then completed identical questionnaires to measure their perceptions of group norms related to bolting, and their own intentions to do it in the future.

    The researchers point out that beliefs about how other people behave are often the “best predictor” in terms of general drinking behaviour and binge drinking, but note that using these beliefs to change behaviour needs to be done carefully to ensure campaigns have the desired effect.


  6. Study examines effect of alcohol on recall of earlier learning

    August 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Exeter press release:

    Drinking alcohol improves memory for information learned before the drinking episode began, new research suggests.

    In the University of Exeter study, 88 social drinkers were given a word-learning task. Participants were then split in two groups at random and told either to drink as much as they liked (the average was four units) or not to drink at all.

    The next day, they all did the same task again — and those who had drunk alcohol remembered more of what they had learned.

    The researchers are keen to stress that this limited positive effect should be considered alongside the well-established negative effects of excessive alcohol on memory and mental and physical health.

    “Our research not only showed that those who drank alcohol did better when repeating the word-learning task, but that this effect was stronger among those who drank more,” said Professor Celia Morgan, of the University of Exeter.

    “The causes of this effect are not fully understood, but the leading explanation is that alcohol blocks the learning of new information and therefore the brain has more resources available to lay down other recently learned information into long-term memory.

    “The theory is that the hippocampus — the brain area really important in memory — switches to ‘consolidating’ memories, transferring from short into longer-term memory.”

    The effect noted by the researchers has been shown under laboratory conditions before, but this is the first study to test it in a natural setting, with people drinking in their homes.

    There was also a second task which involved looking at images on a screen.

    This task was completed once after the drinkers had drunk alcohol and again the following day, and the results did not reveal significant differences in memory performance post-drinking.

    The study’s participants were 31 males and 57 females, aged 18-53.


  7. How do people decide: Should I go, stay, drink?

    August 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Research Society on Alcoholism press release:

    Many studies of alcohol use disorders (AUDs) use tasks that involve monetary rewards or losses to examine individual decision-making vis-à-vis alcohol and other substance use. Yet drinking typically occurs in specific social and incentive contexts that do not involve economic decision-making. This study examined decisions about attending, and drinking in, hypothetical drinking/social contexts wherein several different incentive and disincentive options were provided to the individual.

    Researchers used community advertisements to recruit 434 adults (240 men, 194 women), between 18 and 30 years of age, who varied widely in lifetime alcohol use as well as antisocial problems. Using a computer screen, all participants were presented with six different hypothetical scenarios of drinking at a party; incentives involved party-time fun activities and disincentives involved next-day responsibilities.

    Antisocial symptoms were associated with a reduced sensitivity to potentially negative consequences of drinking, while alcohol problems were associated with a greater sensitivity to the rewarding aspects of partying. Next-day responsibility disincentives had substantial effects on discouraging decisions about attendance, even for those with many alcohol problems. The authors contend that there is value in directly assessing drinking-related decisions in different hypothetical contexts, and in assessing decisions about attendance at risky drinking events and drinking-amount decisions while there.


  8. Which bar patrons underestimate their inebriation the most?

    July 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Research Society on Alcoholism press release:

    Prior research suggests that college students, males, and people drinking alcohol at restaurants, bars, and nightclubs are at particularly high risk for driving after drinking. Breath-testing devices are not usually found at these drinking establishments, so patrons generally assess their own intoxication levels using internal (feelings of intoxication) and external (number of drinks consumed) cues. This study examined bar patrons’ self-estimates of their breath alcohol concentrations (BrACs) in natural drinking environments.

    Researchers recruited 510 study participants, on 14 nights between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., as they exited two bars located close to large universities: one in Florida (n=301) and the other in Texas (n=209). Research assistants conducted a 10-15 minute interview with each of the exiting patrons and measured their BrAC with hand-held testing devices.

    Bar patrons with the highest-measured BrACs underestimated their levels the most. Adjusting for their measured BrAC, individuals who felt more intoxicated or who reported consuming more drinks thought that their BrACs were higher. However, more than 20 percent of participants with a BrAC of at least 0.08% (the legal driving limit) thought that their BrAC was below this level. Individuals younger than 26 and those who reported feeling less drunk were more likely to make this error. Study authors called for more research to assess the association between self-estimated BrACs and driving behavior in different contexts, and to investigate how altering drinking environments could improve individuals’ ability to self-estimate their BrACs and avoid driving after drinking.


  9. Study links even moderate drinking to a decline in brain health

    June 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the BMJ press release:

    Alcohol consumption, even at moderate levels, is associated with increased risk of adverse brain outcomes and steeper decline in cognitive (mental) skills, finds a study published by The BMJ today.

    These results support the recent reduction in alcohol guidance in the UK and raise questions about the current limits recommended in the US, say the authors.

    Heavy drinking is known to be associated with poor brain health, but few studies have examined the effects of moderate drinking on the brain — and results are inconsistent.

    So a team of researchers based at the University of Oxford and University College London set out to investigate whether moderate alcohol consumption has a beneficial or harmful association — or no association at all — with brain structure and function.

    They used data on weekly alcohol intake and cognitive performance measured repeatedly over 30 years (1985-2015) for 550 healthy men and women who were taking part in the Whitehall II study.

    This study is evaluating the impact of social and economic factors on the long term health of around 10,000 British adults.

    Participants had an average age of 43 at the start of the study and none were alcohol dependent. Brain function tests were carried out at regular intervals and at the end of the study (2012-15), participants underwent an MRI brain scan.

    Several factors that could have influenced the results (known as confounding) were taken into account, such as age, sex, education, social class, physical and social activity, smoking, stroke risk and medical history.

    After adjusting for these confounders, the researchers found that higher alcohol consumption over the 30 year study period was associated with increased risk of hippocampal atrophy — a form of brain damage that affects memory and spatial navigation.

    While those consuming over 30 units a week were at the highest risk compared with abstainers, even those drinking moderately (14-21 units per week) were three times more likely to have hippocampal atrophy compared with abstainers.

    There was no protective effect of light drinking (up to 7 units per week) over abstinence.

    Higher consumption was also associated with poorer white matter integrity (critical for efficient cognitive functioning) and faster decline in language fluency (how many words beginning with a specific letter can be generated in one minute).

    But no association was found with semantic fluency (how many words in a specific category can be named in one minute) or word recall.

    The authors point out that this is an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, and say some limitations could have introduced bias. However, key strengths include the information on long term alcohol consumption and the detailed available data on confounding factors.

    As such, they say their findings have important potential public health implications for a large sector of the population.

    “Our findings support the recent reduction in UK safe limits and call into question the current US guidelines, which suggest that up to 24.5 units a week is safe for men, as we found increased odds of hippocampal atrophy at just 14-21 units a week, and we found no support for a protective effect of light consumption on brain structure,” they write.

    “Alcohol might represent a modifiable risk factor for cognitive impairment, and primary prevention interventions targeted to later life could be too late,” they conclude.

    In a linked editorial, Killian Welch, consultant neuropsychiatrist at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, says these findings “strengthen the argument that drinking habits many regard as normal have adverse consequences for health.”

    This is important, he adds. “We all use rationalisations to justify persistence with behaviours not in our long term interest. With publication of this paper, justification of “moderate” drinking on the grounds of brain health becomes a little harder.”


  10. New study may pave way for treating alcohol addiction by reducing motivation to drink

    June 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Elsevier press release:

    A new study in Biological Psychiatry may pave the way for treating alcohol addiction by reducing motivation to drink, rather than by altering the effects of alcohol itself. Led by Drs. Kasia Radwanska and Leszek Kaczmarek of the Nencki Institute, Warsaw, Poland, the study reports a new mechanism behind alcohol seeking behavior.

    When people think about drugs to treat alcoholism, their first thought is usually a drug that stimulates or blocks a receptor for a chemical messenger. However, the new study highlights a process that changes brain activity by altering the network of proteins that surrounds nerve cells. This network of proteins, called the extracellular matrix, provides active support for the development and activity of nerve cells. The functions of the matrix are regulated, in part, by enzymes that break down matrix proteins; one of these enzymes is matrix metalloproteinase-9 (MMP-9).

    In the study, while mice had free access to alcohol to establish addiction-like behavior, those missing the enzyme MMP-9 (MMP-9 KO) drank just as much as normal mice. However, first author Dr. Marzena Stefaniuk and colleagues found that MMP-9 KO mice were less motivated to obtain alcohol when its access was restricted, and less persistent to seek alcohol during withdrawal — behaviors normally characteristic of addiction. The researchers were able to restore the impaired motivation by replacing MMP-9 in the central amygdala, a part of the brain’s emotional center that has also been implicated in alcohol dependence.

    “Interestingly, in human alcoholics, the MMP-9 gene polymorphism that leads to a higher MMP-9 production correlates with greater motivation to drink alcohol,” said Dr. Kaczmarek, referring to their analysis of 167 alcohol-addicted males compared with 199 control males, also included in the new study. Using a clinical assessment of alcoholism behavior, the researchers found that addicted people with a T allele in the MMP-9 gene continued to drink alcohol despite the negative consequences more frequently than patients with a C allele. The findings further support the role of MMP-9 in motivation for alcohol.

    “Matrix metalloproteinases play critical roles in brain function and disease that have only recently received intensive study,” said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. “The exciting study by Stefaniuk and colleagues implicates them in alcohol use disorders, but they are likely to play roles quite broadly in psychiatric disorders. It will be important to determine whether these proteins may be targeted therapeutically.”

    In previous studies, MMP-9 has been demonstrated to be mandatory in the central amygdala for formation of appetitive memory traces via synaptic plasticity — the structural and physiological alteration of synapses, the connections that facilitate communication between neurons. Indeed, the loss of MMP-9 in mice impaired structural and physiological alcohol-related alterations in the central amygdala, leading the authors to suggest MMP-9-dependent synaptic plasticity in this brain region as a new mechanism behind alcohol craving.

    “In aggregate, these findings point to MMP-9 as a novel therapeutic target in fighting alcohol addiction,” said Kaczmarek.