Teen drinking alters brain chemistry leading to impairment in decision making in adulthood, a new study finds.
The study was conducted by University of Washington researchers on a group of 30-50 days old rats, an age equivalent to that of a human teenager. The rats were given access to alcohol-laced "Jell-O shots" for 24 hours a day till they reached adulthood.
The rats were then given a test where they could choose between taking smaller risks to gain smaller treats or bigger risks for greater treats. Researchers found that the rats exposed to alcohol as teenagers were more inclined to opt for tasks with higher risks, even when they had the option of choosing lower risk tasks that would give them more treats overall. This behavior suggests that alcohol consumption during adolescence affects long-term decision making abilities.
"Early life experiences can alter the brain in the long term, with profound implications for behavior in adulthood," said Abigail Schindler, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington who conducted the research in a statement. "This study points to the potential effects of alcohol on brain development in adolescence, a period of exploration when young adults are often experiencing alcohol for the first time."
To gain a better understanding of the phenomenon, researchers examined the rats' brains and found that the effect was due to changes in dopamine, a brain chemical that contributes to the experience of reward and to possible changes in GABA receptors, which can act as a brake system to keep dopamine in check.
Researchers noted that early exposure to alcohol breaks of the brain's dopamine system, which impairs decision making abilities. The findings also shed light on the development of alcohol and drug addiction.
"In humans, the younger you are when you first experience alcohol, the more likely you are to experience problems with alcohol in adulthood. But it's sort of a chicken-and-egg problem, because it's been unclear whether some people have a natural tendency toward alcohol abuse, or if alcohol itself has an effect on the brain," said Schindler.
Findings of the study were presented during the Experimental Biology 2014 meeting on Sunday, April 27, 2014. The study was funded by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.