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Teen Binge Drinking Linked to Long Term Brain Changes

November 7th, 2014

images-2According to a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, binge drinking during adolescence can have long-term effects on brain function.

Past research has documented the effects of binge drinking on the brain, especially during adolescence, when the brain is still developing. Studies have also linked heavy alcohol use among teens to changes in myelin, the protective coating surrounding nerve fibers that boosts communications between neurons, to cognitive impairment later in life.

According to the study’s co-author, Heather Richardson, PhD of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it has not been clear whether such brain changes are the direct result of alcohol use or other factors. To find out, she and her colleagues looked at the effects of alcohol use on the brains of adolescent male rats.

In the study, for two weeks, one group of rats had access to sweetened alcohol each day while another group had access to sweetened water. Just like teens, rats prefer sweet beverages and were happy to work for their drink by pressing a lever that granted access to it. This resulted in high levels of voluntary alcohol consumption among the rats, much like adolescent binge drinking in humans.

At the end of the study, the researchers analyzed the brains of the rats, particularly their levels of myelin. The rats who drank the sweetened alcohol had reduced myelin in the prefrontal cortex of the brain — a region of the brain crucial for decision making the regulation of emotions — compared with the rats that drank the sweetened water.

When looking at the myelin levels in the rats’ brains months later when they reached adulthood, they found the rats that drank the sweetened alcohol continued to show reduced myelin levels in the prefrontal cortex.

“Our study provides novel data demonstrating that alcohol drinking early in adolescence causes lasting myelin deficits in the prefrontal cortex,” Richards said. “These findings suggest that alcohol may negatively affect brain development in humans and have long-term consequences on areas of the brain that are important for controlling impulses and making decisions.”

In addition, the researchers not that when the rats that consumed alcohol during adolescence were exposed again in adulthood, the effects on the brain were comparable in each instance, even though the rats consumed less alcohol for shorter durations during adolescence. They say this indicates that during the teenage years, the brain may have heightened sensitivity to alcohol.

In addition, both groups of rats were given a working memory task as adults, which tested their ability to retain new information for short periods. The adult rats who consumed the alcohol displayed a poorer performance on this task compared to the rats who drank the sweetened water.

Richardson and her colleagues say their findings show that was well as lasting structural damage to the brain, binge drinking during adolescence may impair cognitive functions associated with learning and memory later in life.

The team said they hope their findings will pave the way for new strategies to treat alcohol use disorders.

“Results from this work focusing on the prefrontal cortex could also help us better understand the function of myelin and how myelin deficits may contribute to other psychiatric conditions associated with prefrontal impairments, such as impulsivity, Tourette syndrome and schizophrenia,” they wrote.

*This article appeared on the CADCA website – www.cadca.org

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