Alzheimer’s Drug Repairs Binge Drinking Brain Damage in Mice

Alcohol abuse can do serious damage to the human brain, and it increasingly appears the effects are worse in still-developing adolescents. Now, researchers have found a possible solution, suggesting that a popular Alzheimer’s medication may be able to repair some damage associated with teenage alcohol abuse.

Donepezil, which is used to improve Alzheimer’s patients' quality of life, works by boosting activity in the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in order to increase learning and memory capabilities. Binge drinking during adolescence also affects acetylcholine activity, and the researchers wondered if Donepezil could be beneficial in this area.

Related: This extremely common drug given to alcoholics also kills cancer cells, and we finally know why 

For their study, the team from Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina gave Donepezil to adolescent mice that had been exposed to alcohol. The mice were given “average” doses of the drug for four days, according to the lead study researcher, Scott Swartzwelder, a professor of psychiatry at Duke. He told Newsweek that the mice’s brains were then examined post-mortem and were found to have regrown dendrites in their hippocampus.

02_16_drinker The consequences of partying in your youth may one day be fixable. Hannah Peters/Getty Images

The hippocampus is critical when it comes to memory and learning for all mammals, including humans. Dendrites, the tree-like branches found in brain cells in the hippocampus, help to send signals to other brain cells. Past research has shown that binge drinking can lead to the loss of dendrites.

Related: Alcohol health risks: Female drinkers lose more brain cells than male drinkers

The Duke researchers also found that Donepezil affected the Fmr1 gene in the brains of the mice. This gene also plays a role in memory and learning, and the gene changes caused by the drug appear to be behind the regrowth of brain cell branches.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the younger one begins drinking, the more serious the possible consequences. For example, in utero alcohol exposure can lead to serious developmental difficulties, including learning problems and physical deformities. Exposure during adolescence may also leave a lasting mark, and past research showed that consuming large amounts of alcohol over a short period of time during adolescence can affect the hippocampus.

However, this news is not meant to strike fear in the hearts of everyone who went to a college kegger.

“It’s not like [alcohol] is turning generations of people into morons,” Swartzwelder told Newsweek. “If that were the case then 75 percent of everyone in the U.S. who went to college would be dumb.”

It's possible that excessive drinking has just minimal effects, impairing perhaps 3 percent to 5 percent of total learning capacity. Still, as Swartzwelder pointed out, in a competitive world, a 5 percent difference may be a big deal: “The real cruel irony in it is that you might not know what you would have had.”

Swartzwelder emphasized that the hippocampus is very similar in humans and mice, and thus we may find that these results are repeated in clinical trials.

While the research is fresh, it seems we could be on the cusp of a treatment for the damages of binge drinking. We already have drugs to help our focus, whether it’s caffeine in the morning or Ritalin and Adderall for those with ADD. One day, a memory-enhancing drug could also be available, and the many who have lost brain power due to their partying in younger years will know what it’s like to regain that level of thought.