Binge drinking can alter the way your brain directs attention, study finds

New research indicates that alcohol use can affect how the brain processes information.

The study, published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, found that alcohol-related images and words were processed more efficiently by people with a history of binge drinking.

“Previous work in this area has shown that images of alcohol, and even alcohol-related words, can be extremely salient stimuli for people who drink regularly,” explained Reiko Graham of Texas State University, San Marcos. “Behavioral studies of attentional bias have shown differences in reaction times to alcohol versus non-alcohol stimuli in social drinkers, but most research tends to stop at that conclusion. We were interested in delving a bit further to clarify the timing of attention to alcohol cues using an attentional blink (AB) paradigm. Studying this phenomenon allowed us to observe how motivationally-relevant stimuli could gain access to consciousness in such a short temporal window under limited attentional resources.”

The study compared 47 college students with a history of binge drinking in the past 6 months to 47 students who were social drinkers without a recent history of binge drinking.

“People who engage in hazardous alcohol use patterns (e.g. binge drinking) are often unaware of the impact this style of drinking can have on behaviors beyond our conscious awareness,” Graham told PsyPost. “Prior research suggests that those who participate in binge drinking may become sensitized to alcohol-related cues with repeated exposure, resulting in an automatic shift of attention toward these types of stimuli (i.e. attentional bias).”

“Using this knowledge, we took a relatively novel approach to study the time course of these attentional biases by using an attentional blink (AB) paradigm. The AB is a phenomenon in which the second of two targets fails to be perceived when it appears within 200-500 ms after the first target, thought to be due to the brain’s limited attentional resources.”

“Ultimately, binge drinkers (versus non-binge drinkers) were able to correctly identify alcohol cues (versus non-alcohol cues) under depleted attentional resources at early levels of encoding, evidenced by a lack of AB for these targets,” Graham said. “Further, these effects were also related to BDs with a family history of an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and those with a more severe history of problem drinking. This suggests an increased efficiency in attentional processing to alcohol cues in binge drinkers. Understanding these subtle differences in the timing and extent of attentional processing in social drinkers with varied patterns of drinking is important to help inform potential treatment options as well as efforts to prevent AUDs.”

Graham explained that electroencephalography (EEG) studies could strengthen the findings.

“Although our research suggests the AB paradigm can be an effective means to study the temporal dynamics of attentional biases to alcohol cues, event-related potentials (ERPs) would be more sensitive in this regard,” she explained. Event-related potentials refer to electric brainwave patterns associated with different tasks.

“Thus, it is important to employ ERPs in future research to provide more clarification in the time course of attention to alcohol cues, as well as supplement the existing behavioral data. Additionally, while we did not use alcohol cues particular to each participant’s preferences, beverage preference may have an influence on attention to alcohol cues.”

“In addition to our main finding, we also found a significant secondary effect,” she explained. “We examined attentional biases using both a word-based experiment and an image-based experiment that were otherwise identical on all parameters. We found that non-binge drinkers had an increased accuracy for alcohol-related images (compared to words), suggesting images were more compelling than words, perhaps due to a higher ecological validity for images. However, we did not see this effect in binge drinkers, and future research is needed to help explain this finding.”

The study, “Attentional blink to alcohol cues in binge drinkers versus non-binge drinkers“, was also co-authored by Francesco M. DePalma and Natalie Ceballos.