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Heavy Alcohol Consumption May Affect Brain Development In Adolescents

First Posted: Dec 13, 2016 03:10 AM EST
Young People
In the study, cortical thinning was observable in young adults, who had been heavy drinkers throughout their adolescence.
(Photo : Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

A recent study has recently revealed that the use of heavy alcohol during adolescence can alter the development of the brain. The study mentioned that cortical thinning was observable in young people who had been drinking heavily throughout their adolescence.

Indian Express noted that researchers from the University of Eastern Finland and Kuopio University Hospital in Finland did a magnetic resonance imaging of the brain structure on young and healthy, but heavy-drinking adults who had been heavy drinkers throughout their adolescence, as well as on age-matched light-drinking control participants.

The participants of the study were 13 to 18 years old at the onset of the study. These participants were part of a three cross-sectional studies conducted over the course of 10 years, in 2005, 2010 and 2015. They were academically successful, and the prevalence of mental health problems did not vary between the two groups.

Although the heavy-drinking participants had used alcohol regularly for 10 years, approximately 6-9 units roughly once a week, none of them had a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder.

Researchers reported that the magnetic resonance imaging of the brain revealed statistically significant differences between the groups. Among the heavy-drinking participants, gray matter volume was decreased in the anterior cingulate cortex bilaterally as well as in the right insula, reported Science Daily.

"The maturation of the brain is still ongoing in adolescence, and especially the frontal areas and the cingulate cortex develop until the twenties. Our findings strongly indicate that heavy alcohol use may disrupt this maturation process," says Ph.D. student Noora Heikkinen, the first author of the study.

It is also important to note that cingulate cortex holds an important role in impulse control, and volumetric changes in this area may play a crucial role in the development of a substance use disorder later in life. Structural changes in the insula, on the other hand, may reflect a reduced sensitivity to alcohol's negative subjective effects and in this way contribute to the development of a substance use disorder.

"The exact mechanism behind these structural changes is not known. However, it has been suggested that some of the volumetric changes may be reversible if alcohol consumption is reduced significantly. As risk limits of alcohol consumption have not been defined for adolescents, it would be important to screen and record adolescent substance use, and intervene if necessary," Heikkinen added.

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