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Binge Drinking Doesn’t Hurt Next-Day Tests

But it’s still a very bad idea

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SPH’s Jonathan Howland found that binge drinking doesn’t affect students’ next-day test performance. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Warning: Jonathan Howland is a professional. Do not try this at home.

Tipplers may be tempted to try to corroborate startling findings by Howland (SPH’84, UNI’86), a professor of community health sciences at the School of Public Health: binge drinking the night before an exam doesn’t impair performance.

But it does take a toll on attention-reaction times and mood and is fraught with other peril, according to Howland and his team, co-led by Brown’s Damaris Rohsenow.

They analyzed 193 students, ages 21 to 24, from greater Boston universities over the course of two nights, separated by a week. One evening, some subjects drank beer, raising their blood alcohol level to 0.12 percent, and others drank nonalcoholic beer. The next week, each subject received the opposite drink.

The morning after each drinking session, participants took practice versions of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and a quiz on a lecture they’d heard the previous day.

Result: students’ GRE and quiz scores were no different whether they had drunk alcohol or the nonalcoholic beer.

The study, published in this month’s issue of the journal Addiction, has raised plenty of eyebrows.

“This doesn’t disprove that there could be a relationship between alcohol use and academic performance,” says Howland, because test-taking is only one educational element: hungover students can sleep through a test, miss a class, or not learn as much because of attention and reaction problems.

“Beyond the potential implications it could have for your academic performance, more serious is the potential for injury, driving drunk, getting in a fight, or having unprotected sex,” Howland adds. “This study is by no means an affirmation of risky drinking behavior.”

Howland, who has researched alcohol’s day-after effects on sailors, among other occupations, wasn’t surprised that binge drinkers could handle the GRE, which measures skills (like critical thinking) acquired over many years. He says his findings suggest that “if you have learned a task well, it can probably take the hit of at least the alcohol levels we were exposing people to. That’s deeply embedded stuff.”

He was more surprised that drinkers fared well on the quizzes that tested recall of recently learned information. A possible explanation is found in work he’s done with BU psychiatry colleagues visually monitoring brain activity in hungover students. “You can actually see more brain being recruited,” he says. “They may be concentrating harder” to compensate.

“I was excited that I would actually be paid to have a few beers,” recalls participant Caroline Littlefield (CAS’07). The drinking was in a “controlled, hospital-like setting,” with the researchers asking subjects to drink the first two beers quickly, then proceed at a more leisurely pace, she says.

“We were given playing cards and videos to watch, though we were not allowed to leave the kitchen unattended,” Littlefield remembers. “We were not to discuss whether we thought we had a beer or a placebo.” Taste aside, by the end of the night it wasn’t hard to figure out which was which, she says.

She had only a slight hangover the next morning, but “taking the tests was tiring, and I would have preferred not to have been hungover.”

She adds another variable: other participants confided that they normally drank much more, and Littlefield suggests that binge-drinking students may be accustomed to performing in an academic environment while hungover.

For safety reasons, an EMT and a police officer monitored subjects overnight. Researchers also screened participants to ensure that they didn’t have a drinking problem, but all had to have gone on a drinking binge at least once within the previous 30 days. “We didn’t want any kids who hadn’t had the amount of alcohol we were going to give them,” Howland says.

“Our studies, where we’ve used this amount of alcohol, have been approved by institutional review boards at Harvard, the University of Michigan, Brown, the BU Medical Center, and Linkoping, Sweden,” he adds. “We have, over the years, dosed almost 600 people to that level, and we’ve never had a problem. We had one person who became intoxicated. She was fine. She slept it off.”

A study that induced drinking, financed by SPH’s Youth Alcohol Prevention Center? No irony, says Howland, although funders might be both surprised and less than overjoyed by the findings: the center is supported by the anti–alcohol abuse arm of the National Institutes of Health, which bankrolls most of this kind of research.

“The only thing that makes people quizzical about this is that we didn’t find anything” proving test-taking impairment, Howland says. “That’s not the NIH’s fault.”

One-third or more of college students nationwide acknowledge taking part in binge drinking, the researchers write. For most adults, binge drinking is defined as downing five or more drinks for men and four or more for women in about two hours.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

13 Comments

13 Comments on Binge Drinking Doesn’t Hurt Next-Day Tests

  • Anonymous on 04.07.2010 at 5:20 am

    isn’t this pretty old?

  • Anonymous on 04.07.2010 at 7:50 am

    Who sponsored this research, The Onion?

  • Anonymous on 04.07.2010 at 8:12 am

    You’re joking, right? We’re paying for this study? We’re paying this guy? BU couldn’t find anything else to do with this money?

  • Anonymous on 04.07.2010 at 8:49 am

    What would the purpose of such an idiotic study be. Anyone that has taken an exam the night after drinking can tell you that this is a bad idea. ….. Another stupid front page choice by BU today.

    • sam on 05.28.2012 at 3:08 pm

      i have an exam tomorrow and i was wondering if drinking 2 units of alcohol will impair my performence tomorrow, not gettin drunk, just two small glasses of dissarono, so i looked up wheather alcohol impairs perfomance on a cognitive task the next day, and this study educated me. That was the point of this “idiotic” study x

  • Anonymous on 04.07.2010 at 9:58 am

    haha what a waste of time

  • Anonymous on 04.07.2010 at 2:21 pm

    “subjects are displaying signs of merrymaking, appear very happy. issue subject b one cigarette.”

  • Anonymous on 04.07.2010 at 3:15 pm

    Read it!

    Who is paying for this study? And why? It kind of says right in the article…

    Always more fun to just read the headline and get outraged, though.

  • Anonymous on 04.07.2010 at 4:07 pm

    “Anyone that has taken an exam the night after drinking can tell you that this is a bad idea. ….. Another stupid front page choice by BU today.”

    Actually, the results showed the opposite. That’s why it’s news.

    “What would the purpose of such an idiotic study be.”

    Do you know anything about the public health field? Didn’t think so.

  • Anonymous on 04.08.2010 at 9:42 am

    I know that the results of this study are true based on years of experience drinking the night before exams. I actually think it makes you less anxious…

  • Mobolaji on 04.08.2010 at 2:20 pm

    Not a Valid/Reliable Study

    I disagree with this study. I have a lot of college friends that failed their tests/exams a day after drinking or getting wasted. I think in order for this research/study to be Reliable and Valid, another study needs to be done in Texas/Cal or any other party schools simply because college students at those schools know how to drink. I also presented this study to one best friend from College and his response was:

    “I think this guy must have used flawed research methods. Being wasted and taking a test can hinder your performance. Do you remember how badly i did in school and church?”

  • drbill on 04.08.2010 at 6:40 pm

    Binging On Comments

    From the number of purile comments about a rather modest and seemly well run reseach project, I would have to speculate that the authors have hit pay dirt.
    Until the publication of this paper, all you could really say about binge drinking is that the condition could be miraculously “cured” by awarding the afflicted a Batchelor’s Degree – at last in 90% of the cases. In the rush to judgment apparent in these juvenile remarks, no one seems to have realized that we know nothing at all about the neurophysiology of any of these subjects, even whether their brains were metabolizing glucose at a consistent rate in the same locations. If anything, this research and the responses to it demonstrate one significant fact: that mot everyone who drinks even heavily will go on to be alcoholic, and that the pathophysiology of alcoholism remains cunning baffling and powerful.

  • David Roppo on 01.07.2017 at 9:36 am

    Regardless whether binge drinking does or doesn’t effect academic performance, there are other negative consequences for that behavior.

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