Alzheimer’s drug repairs brain damage after alcohol binges in rodents

Top: Dendritic spines are less dense after rats were exposed to alcohol in patterns mimicking binge drinking. Bottom: After being treated with donepezil, density of dendritic spines appeared to return to healthy levels. Credit: Patrick Mulholland/ Charleston Alcohol Research Center

A drug used to slow cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease could offer clues on how drugs might one day be able to reverse brain changes that affect learning and memory in teens and young adults who binge drink.

In a study led by Duke Health and published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, scientists demonstrate in rats that a short duration of the drug donepezil can reverse both structural and genetic damage that bouts of alcohol use causes in neurons, or nerve cells, in the young brain.

There is limited research on the extent to which alcohol effects the developing brain in teens and adolescents, but it’s evident that drinking during adolescence causes changes in the brain. Much of the research has looked specifically at the hippocampus, which is linked to learning and memory. Whether those changes are permanent is unknown.

“Clinical studies are starting to show that adolescents who drink early and consistently across the college years have some deficits in learning and memory,” said senior author Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D., professor in psychiatry at Duke. “It’s not a sledgehammer—it’s not knocking their memory out completely—but there are demonstrable if subtle, effects on their cognitive function.”

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