Women, according to the received wisdom frequently cited by exasperated male drivers, can't read maps.

Now scientists have come up with one rather uncharitable explanation for the supposed phenomenon. It could be the result of binge drinking in adolescence.

A group of American researchers have found that heavy drinking during the teenage years, when the brain is still growing, can affect the development of spatial memory – the ability to orientate oneself on a map and remember how to get from place to place – in both sexes.

Studies among almost 100 students at schools in San Diego, California, found that the heavy drinkers performed less well on measures of spatial memory performance, with women feeling the effects more than men.

Susan Tapert, acting chief of psychology at the Veterans Administration San Diego Health System, who led the study published in the journal Alcoholism, said: "Our study found that female teenage heavy drinkers had less brain activation in several brain regions than female non-drinking teens when doing the same spatial task.

"These differences in brain activity were linked to worse performance on other measures of attention and working memory ability. Male binge drinkers showed some but less abnormality as compared to male non-drinkers. This suggests that female teens may be particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of heavy alcohol use."

The students were normal healthy teenagers who drank socially and might have four or five drinks at a weekend party and then not drink again for some weeks. They drank at a level that was widespread in their age group, she said.

"Long after a young person recovers from a hangover, this study shows that risk to cognitive and brain functions endures. The effects on the developing brain are only now being identified."