The negative effects of adolescent alcohol abuse on adolescent development and well-being are quite widely accepted and understood. Statistics have demonstrated that high levels of adolescent alcohol consumption are associated with higher reported frequencies of mental health difficulties (e.g. development of alcohol dependency), risky behaviours (e.g. unprotected sexual intercourse), physical health issues (e.g. increased tobacco use), interpersonal difficulties (e.g. breakdown of relationships) and poorer academic performance. While these problems are well documented, the long-term effects of early alcohol abuse on the physical structure and wiring of the brain have been less so. Research findings released last year however have shun significant light on the potentially detrimental and enduring effects that such abuse can have on brain matter and functioning.

These findings which were published in the scientific journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research suggest that early binge-drinking may cause irreversible structural and functional damage to a region of the brain named the hippocampus. This area of the brain is responsible for aspects of memory and learning. The aforementioned study led by researcher Mary-Louise Risher utilised an animal model to explore the effects that continuous doses of alcohol given to adolescent rats would have on later adult brain performance. When Risher and her team later examined the hippocampal areas of the adult rats, they found that those who had received early alcohol exposure demonstrated reduced synaptic activity meaning that their neurostructure had changed significantly. Previous research has demonstrated that a reduction in the synaptic proteins and activity of this area is associated with a decline in areas of cognitive functioning associated with memory and learning. Additionally the cells located within this area of the brain were significantly more immature in the rats that had received alcohol exposure.

While Risher et al’s., study was not conducted using a human sample, the advantages of animal models for exploring human issues has been widely recognised and accepted. Nevertheless there are obvious limitations to this avenue of research and further research is necessary to confirm the arguments put forward by these findings. Nevertheless they appear to indicate that adolescent alcohol overconsumption in the form of regular binge drinking may cause irreversible and serious damage to a pivotal area of the brain responsible for core cognitive processes. This damage that appears in the form of synaptic changes in the hippocampal circuits may help to explain learning-related difficulties in later adulthood.

While this study is not the first to demonstrate the structural and functional damage of alcohol consumption on the adolescent brain, it builds on an increasing literature pointing out how pervasive this behaviour can be. These findings are even more pertinent when you consider that research is continuing to highlight that brain development continues long after adolescence.

Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.

Adolescent alcohol abuse – Rewiring the teenage brain

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