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Binge Drinking May Change Teen Brains and Persist into Adulthood

First Posted: Oct 29, 2014 11:44 AM EDT
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Heavy drinking as a teen may change a person's brain. Scientists have found that drinking during adolescence caused structural changes in the brain and memory deficits that persisted into adulthood in rats.

A growing number of teens and young adults engage in binge drinking, which is drinking four or more drinks over approximately two hours. Previous research has shown an association between binge drinking during teen years, changes in myelin in several brain regions and cognitive impairments during adulthood. That's why scientists decided to take a closer look.

In this case, the researchers compared myelin in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with reasoning and decision-making, in young male rats that were given daily access to either sweetened alcohol or sweetened water for two weeks. After that time, the researchers found that the animals who drank alcohol had reduced myelin levels in the prefrontal cortex compared to the rats that just drank water. In addition, the rats that drank alcohol continued to show this deficit even as adults.

"Our study provides novel data demonstrating that alcohol drinking early in adolescence causes lasting myelin deficits in the prefrontal cortex," said Heather Richardson, one of the researchers, in a news release. "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."

The findings reveal that exposure to binge drinking could cause lingering effects to selective brain fibers. In fact, this damage could underlie persistent compromise of cognitive functions involved in learning. This, in turn, could render youth vulnerable for later development of alcohol use disorders. It's imperative to prevent teens from binge drinking in order to make sure that no developmental issues take place.

The findings are published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

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