Background: Binge drinking is prevalent during adolescence, and its effect on neurocognitive development is of concern. In adult and adolescent populations, heavy substance use has been associated with decrements in cognitive functioning, particularly on tasks of spatial working memory (SWM). Characterizing the gender-specific influences of heavy episodic drinking on SWM may help elucidate the early functional consequences of drinking on adolescent brain functioning.
Methods: Forty binge drinkers (13 females, 27 males) and 55 controls (24 females, 31 males), aged 16 to 19 years, completed neuropsychological testing, substance use interviews, and an SWM task during functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Results: Significant binge drinking status × gender interactions were found (p < 0.05) in 8 brain regions spanning bilateral frontal, anterior cingulate, temporal, and cerebellar cortices. In all regions, female binge drinkers showed less SWM activation than female controls, while male bingers exhibited greater SWM response than male controls. For female binge drinkers, less activation was associated with poorer sustained attention and working memory performances (p < 0.025). For male binge drinkers, greater activation was linked to better spatial performance (p < 0.025).
Conclusion: Binge drinking during adolescence is associated with gender-specific differences in frontal, temporal, and cerebellar brain activation during an SWM task, which in turn relate to cognitive performance. Activation correlates with neuropsychological performance, strengthening the argument that blood oxygen level–dependent activation is affected by alcohol use and is an important indicator of behavioral functioning. Females may be more vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of heavy alcohol use during adolescence, while males may be more resilient to the deleterious effects of binge drinking. Future longitudinal research will examine the significance of SWM brain activation as an early neurocognitive marker of alcohol impact to the brain on future behaviors, such as driving safety, academic performance, and neuropsychological performance.