Binge drinking means consuming more than 6 – 8 units of alcohol at least once a week for at least three months. While this is different from alcohol dependency, many people who binge drink develop alcohol dependency later in life. Binge drinking can be a cause for concern as it can lead to organ damage as well as emotional or financial problems in those who engage in it.
The researchers used 110 volunteers in the study, out of which 40 engaged in binge-drinking. Each individual completed a task in which they gambled for virtual money. In each round, the volunteers were faced with a choice between either receiving a “sure” amount of money or gambling for a potentially higher amount. For example, they could choose between definitely gaining £200 or having a 20% chance to gain £1,000. Half of the trials, were “loss” trials where volunteers would either lose £200 or have a 20% chance of losing £1,000 but with an 80% chance of losing nothing.
Both binge drinkers and healthy volunteers were found to make more risky decisions when playing for gains and fewer risky decisions when playing for losses. However, the binge drinkers showed significantly more risky behaviour when playing for losses. In other words, the possible loss did not deter them as much as it did the healthy volunteers.
However, when the binge-drinkers were given explicit feedback about the outcome of their choices – a red sign flashing up to inform them of their losses –their risk-seeking reduced to the level of non binge drinkers. This intact learning could be important in intervention strategies with binge drinkers in the future.
Dr. Valerie Voon, senior author of the study, says that while the result needs further examination, this could have public health implications. She commented that “these results might support explicit cost associated with negative consequences, for instance a financial penalty for A+E visits. I would caution though that the study shows a shift in risk taking in a specific task but we have not studied real world outcomes such as changes in binge drinking episodes.”
The findings of these behavioural experiments were reinforced by brain activity data. The binge drinking group displayed hyperactivity in frontal and parietal regions involved in the anticipation of risk. In addition, the amount by which binge drinkers changed their behaviour in response to feedback was predicted by a change in the activity of the inferior frontal gyrus. This part of the brain is known to determine subjective perception of risk.