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Don’t drink and learn

Do hangovers affect student performance?

SPH researchers investigating the next-day effects of heavy drinking on undergraduates. From left to right: Sara Minsky, Alissa Almeida, Jacey Greece, and Professor Jonathan Howland. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The bartenders serving beer at Boston University’s School of Public Health are exact with their pours, down to the milliliter. They have to be. These brewskies are for science, part of research seeking a more complete understanding of “a few too many.”  

While most alcohol studies focus on how intoxication affects an individual’s reaction time and ability to understand and process information, Jonathan Howland, an SPH professor of social and behavioral sciences, has spent the last decade investigating how similar impairments may result from drinking small amounts of alcohol, as well as the next-day, hangover effects. Most recently, he’s been studying how heavy drinking affects the minds of college students on the morning after a party.

Funded by a five-year grant from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, Howland wants to know how a night of binge drinking impacts a college student’s ability to recall recently acquired information, such as a class lecture, and more long-term learning, such as the material in the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). The researchers have also been testing the effects of hangovers on basic neurocognitive function and reaction time. While the study is still in the data-gathering stage, Howland’s hypothesis is that impairments will be found, which brings up the other goal of his research: getting college students to consider the consequences of heavy drinking.

“We’re hoping to speak to undergraduates, to say that when you go out and party, you may be affecting your ability to learn or perform academically,” he says. “And that should just go on your list of reasons not to party too hard.”  

The idea that a bad hangover can make the next day’s work more difficult and unpleasant may seem self-evident, but much of Howland’s research over the years has focused on the hidden risks of what most people, and current legal standards, consider normal, acceptable behavior. Previously, for instance, he found that a significant percentage of individuals were impaired from drinking within the bounds of the federal regulations concerning alcohol and “safety-sensitive” jobs, such as navigating a ship, flying an airplane, or operating a nuclear power plant. The relatively low risk of such exposure is magnified, because the number of people who may have a beer with lunch or go to work after a night of excessive celebration far surpasses those who would go to work drunk.

“We’re saying normal, nondeviant drinking by nondependant people could be a problem,” he explains.

Since the fall of 2004, Howland and his research team have been recruiting Boston-area college students over 21 to spend two nights, one week apart, at Boston Medical Center’s General Clinical Research Center (GCRC) to study the effects of hangovers on their ability to learn and perform academically.  

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, at four o’clock sharp, up to five study participants check in at the GCRC and are promptly served a dinner of pizza or deli sandwiches, salad, and cookies for dessert. The early dinner is necessary, explains project manager Sara Minsky (SPH’96), “because we have to wait four hours between the subjects’ last meal and the time they’re dosed.”   

For three nights prior to their night at the GCRC, each participant has kept a sleep log (they’re required to sleep eight hours each night between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.).  They’ve also agreed to abstain from alcohol, caffeine, and medication for the 24 hours before their stay. With dinner over, the learning begins — a taped, half-hour public-health lecture by Paula Quatromoni, a Sargent College assistant professor of health sciences, and a textbook chapter on the same topic. They have an hour to read and take notes before all their study aids are removed.  

Happy hour at the GCRC starts promptly at 8:45 p.m. The subject participants gather around a table in the kitchen along with one researcher, whose job is to note what time they finish off a beer and to radio in to the beer pourer in another room that a study subject (known by number) needs another “dose.” While participants aren’t allowed to eat anything during the hour of drinking, there is a television in the kitchen and plenty of videos to choose from.

The group has been randomly divided into those who get a strong European beer (7.3 percent alcohol) and those who drink a nonalcoholic beer. Dosage is determined by body weight in order to target a final blood-alcohol level of .12 after an hour of drinking.  In the next week, the randomized groups will be reversed, with those in the alcohol group getting placebos and vice versa.

“I wouldn’t say it gets rowdy, but as the night progresses people start feeling good and joking around,” explains Minsky. “It’s supposed to be a relaxed atmosphere. Like you’re at a party.”  

But the party ends at 9:45. After drinking, everybody is given a Breathalyzer test to ensure that they’ve reached the target blood-alcohol level. A nurse or emergency medical technician is always present to ensure everybody’s safety. And researchers say about 10 percent of subjects vomit, which is duly recorded as an “adverse event.”

Bedtime is 11 p.m. All the students are awakened the next day at 7 a.m. and given questionnaires to rate their thirstiness, headache, tiredness, nausea, and other hangover measures on a seven-point scale, with zero being “none” and seven being “incapacitating.” After breakfast, they must sit for three hours of testing — a quiz on the previous day’s lecture, a practice GRE, a reaction-time test, and a battery of computer-based gauges of neurocognitive function.  

“We always get jokes about how we must have students lined up around the block for free beer,” says Howland, who notes that participants are also paid $300. “But the fact of the matter is that it’s a substantial commitment, and students are busy. We’re taking a big hunk out of two of their weeks.” About 80 students have completed the experiment, and the goal is to bring 200 participants through the study.

With the data still being collected, Howland expects to report his findings in a year or two. In the meantime, he says, they’ve already found significant decrements in the reaction time of the drinkers compared to the placebo group. In addition to contributing to the data on learning, participants are given the choice of having a cheek swabbed so that their genetic code can be used to study possible genetic links to hangover severity and why a certain percentage of people don’t ever seem to be affected by hangovers. In Howland’s study, about 24 percent report no adverse effects from heavy drinking.

“People don’t really know where hangovers come from, and nobody really knows what to do about them,” says Howland. “There are a lot of folk remedies, but none of them really stand up to randomized trials.”  


BU Today first published this story on June 22, 2006.