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June 15, 2024

Drinking affects cognitive functions in adolescents

By Alice Hung | January 31, 2013

Along with the start of classes, as the new semester begins, is the onset of weekend partying and late-night drinking. Especially with recruitment week luring in the corner, the presence of alcohol is to be expected.

Recent studies show that not only can excessive alcohol cause permanent brain damage in adolescents, but it is also much harder to for addicts to quit than previously expected.

It is widely known amongst college students like us that alcohol affects the brain in a negative way. We have been told not to drink in excessive amounts at any age and to be cautious during activities after alcohol consumption. However, recent review article by Daniel Herman and colleagues from the University of Sydney identified specific brain regions that are damaged, the respective patterns of drinking behavior in young adults, the risk period and some potential treatments.

The human brain is a continually developing organ that doesn’t reach its full maturity until around 25 years of age. As a result, any damage induced during development may result in long-lasting consequences. Depending on when one starts drinking, the affected areas may vary.

The onset of drinking has become increasingly early over the years. Moreover, binge drinking, when one consumes large quantities of alcohol over a short period of time, is also becoming increasingly common, with the highest rates between ages 21 and 24. Research shows early alcohol use – and misuse – is correlated with permanent cognitive impairments.

Specifically, heavy alcohol misuse in adolescents is correlated with deficits in visual-spatial processes, executive functions, language skills, attention, problem solving abilities, and memory. These higher order functions are controlled by the cerebral cortex and hippocampus – the last structures of the brain to fully mature.

Chronic alcohol misuse in young adults correlates with altered blood flow in these brain regions, leading to neural atrophies and subsequent permanent damage. In essence, alcohol is causing shrinkage of the brain and neurological reorganization. Research also shows that this can lead to personality changes and emotional deregulation.

Herman and colleagues recommended early treatment that focuses on improving existing cognitive deficits. Another option for more severe alcohol abusers includes inpatient treatment clinics. However, a recent study by Nathan J. Marchant and researchers of the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that these clinics may not be effective in preventing relapse.

In response to negative consequences such as job loss, car accidents and relationship damages due to drinking problems, many alcohol-users are motivated to stop drinking. Although addiction research with animals has touched upon this question, it has been difficult to mirror the conditions affecting people.

To better reflect the drinking problem that many face, Marchant and colleagues used a relapse model for which rats were treated for their addiction in an environment different from where they originally became addicted. This method mimics people’s efforts to quit alcohol in treatment clinics.

Results showed that despite the suppression of alcohol-intake in the new environment, rats relapsed to their previous self-administered drinking behaviors when reintroduced to the original environment. This suggests that the positive effects of inpatient treatment may be temporary and ineffective when people return to their day-to-day lives.

Future studies are needed to better understand the neurological damage caused by adolescent alcohol misuse, and to discover better ways to ameliorate existing damage and treat addiction. Nonetheless, from existing studies, it is evident that drinking behaviors in young adults cause lasting damage to the brain.

Therefore, before taking a swing from the bottle next week at the parties, remember that you may still need those neurons for upcoming exams!

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