Binge drinking and the teenage brain

binge drinking and the teenage brain

A new study from Duke University Medical Center demonstrates binge drinking can pose long-term health risks to teens.

Lead study author Mary-Louise Risher, a post-doctoral researcher in the Duke Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, made her comments in a recent press release. “It’s important for young people to know that when they drink heavily during this period of development, there could be changes occurring that have a lasting impact on memory and other cognitive functions.”

Risher and her colleagues experimented on rats. They gave the rats alcohol over a period of time that roughly approximated the pivotal period of cellular development in the teenage brain. The scientists gave the rats just enough alcohol to impair but not sedate them. They then cut off the alcohol supply and allowed the rats to develop into adults — which, in rats, takes 24-29 days.

Based on knowledge gathered from prior studies, the researchers knew adult rats raised on a steady diet of alcohol displayed significant memory loss compared to their sober kin. This condition proved permanent. The researchers plugged electric stimuli into the rats’ hippocampus. According to Ananya Mandal, M.D., the hippocampus “is a small organ located within the brain’s medial temporal lobe and forms an important part of the limbic system, the region that regulates emotions. The hippocampus is associated mainly with memory, in particular long-term memory. The organ also plays an important role in spatial navigation.” The team focused on the physical effects on the rat’s brains; in particular, they were looking to see the effects on long-term potentiation — or LTP.

LTP is the strengthening of brain synapses as the mind learns new tasks or remembers events. Researchers fully expected to find stunted LTP in the rats exposed to alcohol during their adolescent stage. Instead, researchers found the rats’ LTP was excessively active. Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D. is a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke and Senior Research Scientist at the Durham Virginia Medical Center and also the senior author of the study. He notes, “At first blush, you would think the animals would be smarter,” Swartzwelder said. “But that’s the opposite of what we found. And it actually does make sense, because if you produce too much LTP in one of these circuits, there is a period of time where you can’t produce any more. The circuit is saturated, and the animal stops learning. For learning to be efficient, your brain needs a delicate balance of excitation and inhibition – too much in either direction and the circuits do not work optimally.”

The researchers also found structural differences in the nerve cells of the alcoholic rats. Normal, mature spines resemble mushrooms. The study rats had lanky, spindly spines which, to the scientists, suggested immaturity. “It’s quite possible that alcohol disrupts the maturation process, which can affect these cognitive function later on,” Risher said. “That’s something we are eager to explore in ongoing studies.”

A 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health—NSDUH contains some sobering statistics on binge drinking in the population aged 12-20:

  • 5.4 million people — 14.2 percent — engaged in binge drinking; mostly males
  • 1.4 people million people — 3.7 percent — participated in heavy drinking
  • 5,000 people under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related incidents: car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning and other injuries such as falls, burns and drowning
  • Research shows brain development continues well into a person’s twenties; alcohol can affect this development and contribute to a range of problems

If your son participates in binge drinking, or any other dangerous behaviors that may point to a greater problem, we can help. White River Academy is a residential boarding school located at the edge of the majestic Great Basin in Delta, Utah. White River focuses on treating young men with addiction and mental health disorders. Please contact us at 866-520-0905 to learn more about our programs.

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