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Home > Research Articles > Binge Drinkers Sensitized to Alcohol Stimulation

Reuters Health

Monday, June 17, 2002

Binge Drinkers Sensitized to Alcohol Stimulation By Alan Mozes NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Young adults who frequently binge drink may do so because an alcohol-induced buzz arrives quicker--and is less of a downer--for them compared with others, researchers report. "We really see a lot of the differences between those who are binge drinkers compared to those who are historically light drinkers," said study lead author Dr. Andrea C. King of the University of Chicago in Illinois. King and her colleagues monitored both changing perceptions and physical responses among a group of 34 men and women who were asked to consume equal but varying amounts of alcohol over a 3-hour period on three separate occasions. The volunteers--aged 24 to 38--were divided into two groups. "Light drinkers" (LDs) had five drinks or less per week. Men in this group drank a maximum of five drinks on a single occasion, while for women the maximum was four. The "heavy drinkers" (HDs) habitually drank at least 10 drinks per week. The men had at least five drinks in one sitting one to four times a week, while women drank at least four drinks one to four times a week. The researchers found that as their blood-alcohol levels rose and fell, mood perceptions for those in the two groups diverged markedly. Within 15 minutes of their first drink--when blood-alcohol levels had just begun to rise--the HD group demonstrated a rapid increase in feelings of euphoria, vigor, talkativeness and excitement. The LD group, however, did not show any such changes in stimulation. And while King and her team found that over 55% of the HD group said they liked the feeling they had shortly after beginning to drink--and said they wanted to drink more--just over 30% of the LD group felt the same way. As their blood-alcohol levels rose, the LD group reported a greater and quicker sense of being high and drugged than the HD group, the report indicates. In the current issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, the authors also report that light drinkers were much quicker to feel sedated, sluggish, heavy-headed and unable to concentrate than heavy drinkers. King and her team also found that while heart rates did not appear to differ in response to alcohol between the two groups, stress levels--as measured by the presence of the stress hormone cortisol--increased in the LD group, but not in the HD group. Although it remains unclear whether the varying group responses were due to differences in genetic predisposition or to differences in overall alcohol exposure, it did appear that heavy drinkers were more sensitive to quick stimulation and less sensitive to quick sedation than light drinkers, the researchers conclude. King told Reuters Health that her research indicates that those who drink moderately as young men and women may be benefiting from a so-called "protective effect," with their short-term response to drinking perhaps lowering their long-term risk of developing any lingering alcohol abuse problems. "Most people in college who binge think they're doing it at that time, and that they're going to grow out of it and it's not a big deal," King told Reuters Health. "But certainly there's a percentage that goes on to be alcohol dependent.... So it's possible that these individual response mechanisms can help us to understand why some people go on to have long-term drinking problems and other people don't." SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 2002;26:827-835.