Any discussion regarding the link between alcohol and traumatic brain injury (TBI) almost always tends to focus on an individual’s increased risk of injury due to intoxication. Researchers at Ohio State University (OSU) were curious to know the outcome in case the situation reversed, especially among youngsters. An older study from OSU had found that female mice who suffered TBI as juveniles reported significantly high alcohol consumption in adulthood. Based on the study’s findings, the researchers were inspired to review past human studies in greater detail to establish such an association.
The results of their investigation, which appeared in the Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience on July 20, 2017, showed a clear link between TBI in childhood/adolescence and later-life alcohol abuse problems. The findings revealed that children younger than five years who suffered a TBI were 3.6 times more likely to abuse substances as teenagers, compared to children without injuries. These findings may be immensely valuable to parents who are dealing with their teenagers alcoholism – a brain injury during childhood may be a possible cause for such behavior.
A past study of high school students from Ontario, Canada, shows that teenagers who suffered a TBI were twice as likely to binge drink, were at a 2.9 time higher likelihood of nonmedical use of prescription drugs, and a 2.7 time higher likelihood of using illicit drugs in the past 12 months than those without similar injuries. According to Michael D. Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto and one of the researchers, “There’s a toxic combination of substance use and brain injury that needs to be recognized by people who deal with teenagers.”
Juvenile brains are vulnerable to traumatic injuries
The human brain continues to grow and develop till the late teens/early 20s. During this developmental phase, brains are more vulnerable not only to the physical occurrence of traumatic injuries but also to the outcome of such injuries, including mental health problems and neurological disorders. Since essential parts of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex are still developing, teens may be prone to acting impulsively instead of carefully evaluating situations. For instance, teens may not be able to determine that drinking and driving is never free from risks no matter how much confidence one may have in his/her abilities. They may not know when to stop consuming alcohol in particular situations.
The researchers found that brain injuries can adversely impact situations which prevent alcohol abuse. Brain injury survivors may experience problems such as the inability to play sports or participate in extracurricular activities during recovery. Such individuals may use alcohol to cope with the negative outcome of their injuries. TBI may also cause significant brain inflammation; the younger a person, the longer will be the recovery process. They may also impair specific neurochemical systems in the brain, such as the dopaminergic system responsible for function, reward and learning. A damaged dopaminergic system enhances the risk for substance abuse in growing years.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the U.S. Excessive alcohol use causes over 4,300 deaths among underage youth annually. It had associated economic costs of $24 billion in 2010. Underage drinking, especially binge drinking, is linked to several negative outcomes including school-related issues (higher absenteeism, falling grades), motor accidents and unintentional injuries, impairment to brain development, and death from alcohol poisoning.
Substance abuse problems need to be specifically targeted after brain injury
Zachary Weil, a researcher at OSU and one of the study’s authors, emphasizes the importance of the issue by stating that “drinking after brain injury is associated with health problems and poorer outcomes. Specifically targeting substance abuse problems in the brain-injured population could do a lot of good.” The researchers also acknowledge that further research is needed and caution that the association between TBI and alcohol abuse has not been fully established in humans although there is sufficient “suggestive evidence.” Parents should be watchful of their teens’ drinking habits and make efforts to ascertain the underlying problem that triggered substance abuse. In case the child is already addicted, an expert’s help must be sought at the earliest.
White River Academy is a boarding school for troubled teens that helps adolescents recover from substance use and mental health disorders. It offers state-of-the-art drug and alcohol treatment centers and a holistic approach to help teenage boys give up their addiction and make a complete recovery. Call our 24/7 helpline or chat online with our representatives to know more about evidence-based treatment for alcohol abuse.