A recent study has revealed that the damage drinking does to adolescent brains has long lasting effects. The region of the brain that regulates learning and memory is affected the most. The latest research was conducted by a team at Duke Medicine with rodents standing in for humans.
Their published findings are shedding light on how alcoholism affects the brain on a cellular level in young drinkers. The study makes a strong case for increasing efforts to educate young people about the deadly effects of alcohol and binge drinking.
A big reason why such serious damage is done by alcohol to the brains of young drinkers is because the development of their brain is still occurring. Even after reaching the legal age of 18 years, a young person's brain continues to mature all the way up until their mid twenties.
This means that heavy drinking done during this critical period may have irreversible damaging effects. The result could affect a person's behavior and cognitive abilities for life.
The team conducting the study wanted to expand on earlier research they had done on rodents that showed how animals exposed to alcohol in their early developmental years had much more difficulty with memory tasks than animals who weren't exposed to alcohol. They knew the damage was connected to alcohol consumption, but weren't sure how exactly the impairments originated in the brain, specifically in the hippocampus.
In order to conduct their latest study, researchers at Duke gave a group of young rodents enough alcohol to impair their mental functioning but not sedate them. As the rodents grew into adults, the regular doses of alcohol were stopped and they were allowed to reach full grown size. The whole process lasted 29 days.
This time, the researchers focused specifically on activity in the hippocampus by using electrical stimuli. They found that brain synapse activity was stronger during learning activities and when conjuring up memories.
The brain seems to rely on this kind of vigorous synaptic activity in order to ensure that essential learning tasks are completed. This type of neurological activity is especially important for adolescents who are acquiring and retaining large amounts of information on a day to day basis.
In the study, the rodents who were exposed to alcohol during their formative stages were shown to have hyperactive synapse activity. This means there was an excess of activity that prevented the animals from acquiring any more information.
The researchers also observed a structural change in the nerve cells in their brains. Early exposure to alcohol seems to have limited the development of these nerve cells causing them to remain in an immature state.
The Duke researchers concluded that early and regular consumption of alcohol led to behavioral immaturity based on the way the hippocampus, brain cells, and other regions of the brain associated with learning and cognitive ability are affected. Learning, impulsiveness, and emotionality are also affected by the damage alcohol does to these brain regions.
The researchers believe that alcohol most likely has an effect on the neurological maturation process that leads to changes in cognitive ability later on in adulthood. Future studies will probably focus on how alcohol consumption affects these necessary functions. The researchers at Duke also want to start looking closer at the cellular changes caused by early alcohol consumption and the long term effect it has on cognitive ability.