New research shows that rats given large bingeing doses of alcohol every eight hours for four consecutive days experienced brain damage. The area of the brain responsible for smell was damaged after only two days of heavy drinking and other regions were damaged after four days.

“This is a four-day model,” says Fulton Crews, of the center for alcohol studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. ?If you went on a long weekend binge, you could do this.”

The amount of alcohol given to the rats was the equivalent of 10 drinks, twice the amount commonly defined as binge drinking for men (it’s four or more drinks for women).Such binge drinking is relatively common ? 15 percent of adults reported doing it at least once within the previous month, according to 1999 data from the National Center of Health Statistics.

A lot of what is known about human brains and alcohol has come from autopsy studies after someone dies following years of abuse. “It’s under those conditions that most of our knowledge about the damaging effects of alcohol has occurred. But it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t occurred earlier,” says John Crabbe, director of the Portland Alcohol Research Center at Oregon Health Sciences University.

Researchers have noted profound brain shrinkage associated with alcohol that can be seen on brain scans in living people, but the implications of this shrinkage are difficult to understand. The same type of brain shrinkage is associated with aging, and there seems to be no clear relationship between the degree of shrinkage and cognitive decline. Crabbe says, “When a person stops drinking ? even if they have been drinking for a long time ? frequently a good bit of that shrinkage recedes.?

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