Heavy teenage drink­ing linked to ab­nor­mal brain devel­op­ment

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

Teens who drink heav­ily are more likely than their peers to have less gray mat­ter, an im­por­tant brain struc­ture that aids in mem­ory, de­ci­sions, and self-con­trol, ac­cord­ing to a Fin­nish study.

The study was ob­ser­va­tional, so it is im­pos­si­ble to say whether heavy drink­ing caused this stunted brain devel­op­ment. Peo­ple may have less brain mat­ter due to ge­netic fac­tors, and this ab­nor­mal­ity may make them more likely to abuse al­co­hol, the re­searchers write in the jour­nal Ad­dic­tion. “Sub­stance use has been found to be con­nected to so­cial ex­clu­sion, men­tal health prob­lems and lower ed­u­ca­tional at­tain­ment,” said lead au­thor Noora Heikki­nen of the Univer­sity of East­ern Fin­land.

Hav­ing less gray mat­ter may cause sim­i­lar prob­lems, as gray mat­ter con­tains most of the brain’s neu­rons and plays an im­por­tant role in mem­ory, emo­tions, de­ci­sion-mak­ing, and self­con­trol. “Brain struc­tural changes might be one fac­tor that con­trib­utes to the so­cial and men­tal prob­lems among sub­stance-us­ing in­di­vid­u­als,” Heikki­nen told Reuters Health by email.

To ex­plore the ef­fect of al­co­hol use on de­vel­op­ing teenage brains, the re­searchers stud­ied 62 young adults who were par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Fin­nish Youth Well­be­ing Study. Be­tween 2013 and 2015, the par­tic­i­pants filled out ques­tion­naires, an­swer­ing ques­tions about how of­ten they drank and how many drinks they con­sumed.

The par­tic­i­pants had all com­pleted sim­i­lar ques­tion­naires five and 10 years ear­lier, start­ing at age 13. As teens, 35 of the par­tic­i­pants fell into the cat­e­gory of heavy drinkers. For ex­am­ple, they drank four or more times a week, or they drank less of­ten but when they did, they drank heav­ily. The other 27 young adults in the study were con­sid­ered light drinkers.

No one in ei­ther group showed symp­toms of de­pres­sion or other se­ri­ous men­tal ill­nesses. Heavy and light drinkers had sim­i­lar rates of anx­i­ety, per­son­al­ity dis­or­ders, and drug use. Heavy drinkers were sig­nif­i­cantly more likely to smoke cig­a­rettes than light drinkers, how­ever.

But when par­tic­i­pants un­der­went brain scans to look at gray mat­ter and other brain struc­tures that may be af­fected by al­co­hol use, the heavy drinkers had smaller vol­umes of gray mat­ter in sev­eral brain ar­eas when com­pared with the light drink­ing group.

Specif­i­cally, those ar­eas are known as the bilateral an­te­rior cin­gu­late cor­tex, the right or­bitofrontal and fron­topo­lar cor­tex, the right su­pe­rior tem­po­ral gyrus and the right in­su­lar cor­tex.

The frontal sec­tion of the brain, which helps peo­ple plan and make de­ci­sions, con­tin­ues de­vel­op­ing un­til peo­ple reach their early 20s, said Sa­man­tha Brooks, a lec­turer at the Univer­sity of Cape Town in South Africa who stud­ies the ef­fects of drink­ing on ado­les­cents.

Dur­ing this pe­riod of brain devel­op­ment, teens are in a “vul­ner­a­bil­ity win­dow” where they may be more likely to de­velop sub­stance use prob­lems, said Brooks, who was not in­volved in the study.

In ad­di­tion, if teens drink heav­ily dur­ing this sen­si­tive time, they may cause dam­age to their brains that can make their drink­ing be­hav­ior worse and cause other prob­lem be­hav­iors like miss­ing school or hav­ing un­safe sex, Brooks said. “Par­ents and teach­ers must be alert to the vul­ner­a­bil­ity win­dow dur­ing ado­les­cence, and seek help as early as pos­si­ble, to pre­vent more se­ri­ous dam­age to the brain,” Brooks said by email.

Stop­ping al­co­hol use can in­crease gray mat­ter vol­ume when it is done early enough, Heikki­nen noted. “How­ever, when al­co­hol use has con­tin­ued for a long time, some struc­tural changes be­come ir­re­versible,” Heikki­nen warned. “Teenage years are very im­por­tant for brain devel­op­ment, and al­co­hol can tam­per with this process,” Heikki­nen said.

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