August 16, 2012 — Adolescents who drink heavily in their teenage years exhibit less efficient processing of information and have less activation in certain brain areas than those who do not start to drink, new research shows.
"High rates of alcohol consumption during adolescence are concerning because the brain is undergoing significant developmental changes," lead author Lindsay M. Squeglia, PhD, of the University of California, San Diego, told Medscape Medical News.
"Many kids start to drink heavily in their teenage years, and most of the research that has looked at how the brains of adolescents who drink differ from the brains of those who don't looked at the subject at one point in time," Dr. Squeglia said. "It was hard to disentangle whether brain abnormalities were a consequence of heavy drinking or a risk factor for starting to drink."
The research was published in the September issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers scanned the brains of 40 children and adolescents aged 12 to 16 years before they started drinking alcohol and repeated the scans 3 years later.
The investigators found that there were baseline differences between those who went go on to binge drink compared with those who did not go on to drink alcohol. Binge drinkers exhibited more frontal and parietal activation and less occipital activation than their nondrinking counterparts.
"This was surprising to us because [at baseline] none of these children had consumed alcohol yet," Dr. Squeglia said.
The researchers also found that the teens who drank heavily had brains that were less efficient at processing information than the nondrinkers.
"Of course, we can't scan every kid and then put them in an intervention program based on the results of their scan," Dr. Squeglia observed. "Our goals are mainly psychoeducational for adolescents and parents, showing them that there is an effect of alcohol on the way the brain functions and that there are kids who are more vulnerable when they start to drink heavily."
When adolescents drink, they tend to drink in much greater quantities than adults, and most engage in binge drinking, she added.
"None of the kids in our study met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder, so they are not drinking often, but when they do drink, they are drinking in very large quantities of 4 or more drinks in 1 occasion if female, and 5 or more if male. Our study shows that there might be some preexisting vulnerability to heavy drinking," Dr. Squeglia said.
Dr. Squeglia has disclosed no relevant financial relationships
J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2012;73:749-760. Abstract
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