December 30, 2007

Binge Drinking and the Difficulty of Changing Course

Psychiatrist Paul Steinberg wrote an interesting op-ed article in the New York Times about the permanent effects of binge drinking on the human brain. He discusses the results of experiments with lab rats that indicate that a period of heavy drinking causes difficulties in not learning, but specifically relearning.
When put into a tub of water and forced to continue swimming until they find a platform on which to stand, the sober former binge-drinking rats and the normal control rats (who had never been exposed to alcohol) learned how to find the platform equally well. But when the experimenters abruptly moved the platform, the two groups of rats had remarkably different performances. The rats without previous exposure to alcohol, after some brief circling, were able to find the new location. The former binge-drinking rats, however, were unable to find the new platform; they became confused and kept circling the site of the old platform.
The article is written as a general warning for the forthcoming new year's eve celebrations, but it also contains a choice of words that really beg for an association with a certain individual case.
The binges activate an inflammatory response in rat brains rather than a pure regrowth of normal neuronal cells. Even after longstanding sobriety this inflammatory response translates into a tendency to stay the course, a diminished capacity for relearning and maladaptive decision-making.
Maybe it's not intentional, but I could not avoid making the association to GWB.

The article has some comforting tips for recovering. Exercise has been shown to help recovery in rats. Maybe I should adjust my attitudes to exercise. I could do with some additional relearning capacity.

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