Adolescent drinking is very common. According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, or NSDUH, more than a third (35.1 percent) of all 15-year-olds reported drinking alcohol at least once in their lives. Over 8 million people between the ages of 12 and 20 — or 22.7 percent of this age group — have admitted to drinking within the last month. Many members of this age group admit to binge drinking (having four or five drinks within two hours) and heavy drinking (drinking five or more drinks in one sitting for at least five days within a month).
Most people are aware of the short-term risks of teen drinking: drunken driving, alcohol poisoning and other serious accidents. Every year, more than 4,000 people under the age of 21 die from alcohol-related incidents.
But are there long-term risks? What happens to a developing human brain after years of binge drinking?
Researchers at Binghamton University recently conducted a study that indicates drinking during early to mid-adolescence may increase a person’s vulnerability to chronic stress. The results of this study were published in the journal Brain Research.
The research team was led by Linda P. Spear, Ph.D., distinguished professor of psychology at Binghamton University. To determine how drinking impacts the developing brain, the researchers examined alcohol consumption in young rats. The research team provided rats with alcohol every other day, beginning from early to mid-adolescence.
Once the rats reached adulthood, the researchers examined how the rats performed on various physical and mental tests. They found that the rats that had received ethanol since adolescence had difficulties biologically adjusting to stressful situations.
“Stress hormones are released when you get anxious or are in a stressful circumstance,” explained Dr. Spear to Binghamton University staff writers. “The classic stress hormone is cortisol in humans; it’s corticosterone in rats. When you expose the animals to a stressor, the first time they show a large hormone stress response. However, this hormonal response normally adapts over time, such that less hormone is released following repeated exposure to a relatively mild stressor.”
Rats that had consumed alcohol since adolescence did not experience decreased levels of corticosterone over time — in other words, they were unable to hormonally adapt to the stress.
“They don’t adapt to the chronic stressor, which suggests that they may be more vulnerable later to chronic stress,” said Dr. Spear.
What does this mean?
These results suggest that humans who drink during adolescence may be less able to adapt to chronic stress as they grow older. Since many people drink in an attempt to reduce stress, these individuals might fall into a vicious feedback loop: Drinking makes stress more difficult to handle, causing them to drink even more, etc. Elevated stress during adolescence may also influence the brain’s neural development, resulting in impaired physical and mental health.
“I think what these studies are showing is that there are long-lasting effects from adolescent alcohol exposure, and it is not innocuous. And these effects are most dramatic with exposures during mid- and early adolescence, which is the time when alcohol use is typically initiated in humans,” said Dr. Spear. “So now we’re trying to understand the neural mechanisms that underlie these effects, and ways to prevent or reverse consequences of adolescent alcohol exposure,” said Dr. Spear.
Dr. Spear’s work is part of a national consortium designed to examine the effects of alcohol exposure during adolescence. This work is funded by the National Institute for Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse.
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About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at email@example.com.
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