Binge drinking affects ability to identify emotions

Binge drinking is the consumption of large quantities of alcohol in a short period of time, with the goal of getting drunker more quickly. This practice currently concerns 60% of 16 to 25-year olds in Europe. Overall, young people are not drinking more alcoholic beverages than a decade ago, but “they more frequently consume it until they’re drunk. What that means is that young people today drink less often but in greater quantities,” explains Martin de Duve, director of the non-profit organization Univers Santé at the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL).

Various studies – conducted by the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and the UCL – have already shown that binge drinking can lastingly alter the cognitive and cerebral abilities of those that indulge in it. But it now appears that this method of consumption can also affect the brain from an emotional point of view. This is what Pierre Maurage, a National Fund for Scientific Research-qualified researcher and professor at the UCL’s School of Psychology, has just demonstrated in a study carried out in conjunction with Glasgow University. 24 students between the ages of 20 and 28 participated in the research. They were divided into two groups: binge drinkers, and those that did not drink at all.


There is no consensus on the definition of binge drinking in the scientific domain. In this case, students who consumed between 30 and 35 measures of alcohol over two to four drinking sessions per week were considered to be binge drinkers. A measure is the equivalent of a 25 cl of beer, 10 cl of wine or 3 cl of hard liquor. “These young people are far from being extreme binge drinkers. They’re somewhere in the middle of the scale,” says Maurage.


Fear or anger?

The goal was to test the students’ ability to recognize emotions expressed via the human voice. It had been previously proven that alcoholics have trouble identifying emotions conveyed by the face or the voice. What about binge drinkers? Students had to state whether the intonation (without any semantic content) they heard revealed anger or fear. They were placed in an MRI machine so their brain activity could be visualized at the same time.


It turned out that binge drinkers also suffer from a reduced ability to identify vocal emotions when compared to the control group. This is, however, an essential faculty, as it enables humans to adapt their reactions and to interact with others in the appropriate manner. Maurage thinks, therefore, that binge drinking could have a negative impact on social relationships, which could lead to young people getting stuck in a vicious circle of isolation and alcoholism. This hypothesis will need to be supported by more long-term studies.


The objective of the research is not to stigmatize young people or alcohol. “Not all youths drink to excess. And we have to remember that some adults drink way too much as well. The fact that adults keep pointing the finger at young people makes dialogue difficult,” underlines De Duve. “It’s not the product that causes a problem in itself, but the misuse of it. We think, therefore, that the time has come to ban alcohol advertisements. The goal here is not to eradicate alcohol but to reduce its risks.”



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