Adolescent alcohol expsoure may lead to long-term risky decision making

September 21, 2009 by Joel Schwarz
An adolescent rat eager to sample a gel containing 10 percent ethanol climbs into a jar for his Jell-O shot. Image: University of Washington

( -- Picture this. A bunch of adolescent rats walk into a bar and start consuming Jell-O shots. Lots of them.

Then, three weeks later, some of those party rats are given the choice of pushing one lever that always will give them two sugary pellets or another lever that will give them a larger but uncertain reward of either four or zero treats. The alcohol-consuming rats tend to opt for uncertain rewards while a control group of teetotaling rodents match their choice well to whichever lever had the probability giving the larger reward.

That's what happened in a scenario created by University Washington scientists investigating the neurobiological underpinnings of a link between adolescent and later adult impairments. The research, being published this week in the online edition of the , appears to show a causal link between early heavy drinking and adult decision-making.

"We know early exposure to alcohol and other substances is a predictor of later substance abuse in humans. It is a novel concept to think that early exposure might have long-term cognitive effects. But we can't test this on people. This model using rats lends support to causal link between early alcohol use and later increased risky decision making," said Nicholas Nasrallah, a UW psychology doctoral student and co-author of the study.

"We can't establish causal links based on existing human data but this animal model allowed us to establish this link," said corresponding author Ilene Bernstein, a UW professor of psychology and faculty member of the program in and behavior.

"Scientists believe regions of the brain, including those implicated in decision making, are slow to develop and development extends into adolescence. This study shows that these late-developing structures in rats are affected by high alcohol use."

Rats typically do not drink alcohol, but researchers have found that they will consume ethanol when it is combined with gelatin. For this study, one group of rats was given 24-hour access to a 10 percent solution of ethanol in a tasty gel. The rats were 30 to 49 days old during the experiment, a time span that corresponds to human adolescence. These rats consumed the alcohol-laced gel each day, in amounts equivalent to a large number of drinks in human term," Bernstein said.

A separate control group of rats was given a gel made without any alcohol. At the end of the 20 days the gelatin was withdrawn from both groups. Three weeks later, half of the animals from each group were trained to press the levers to receive the treats. Part of the training included what is called a forced choice where there was only one lever to press. This gave the rats an opportunity to sample the pay off schedule on the uncertain lever that day. Three days of trials were run with the payoff for the large but uncertain reward coming 75 percent of the time and then dropping to 50 percent and 25 percent on subsequent days.

The alcohol-exposed rats showed a strong bias toward the uncertain lever, even when the chance of receiving rewards on the third day diminished to only one in four. The control rats, however, behaved differently and adjusted perfectly to the changing conditions of the experiment, thus gaining more treats than the alcohol-exposed rats.

A second experiment tested whether effects of adolescent alcohol exposure were persistent by waiting three months after the gelatin was withdrawn before testing the remaining . The effects were the same suggesting that the influence of adolescent alcohol exposure on decision making does not diminish over time.

"The known association between behavior and high levels of alcohol use puts people at risk for a number of bad outcomes, particularly substance use," said Bernstein. "Age of exposure to drugs is the No. 1 factor predictive of substance abuse later in life. Adolescent drinking is an epidemic today. This research raises a concern that if the is permanently changed by alcohol we need to place more emphasis on preventing alcohol use."

Source: University of Washington (news : web)

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5 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2009
Using this logic Europeans must be imbeciles !

What is needed in America is the development of
social skills dealing with alcohol at an early age
that carry through to adulthood.
Sep 21, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet Sep 21, 2009
The same could be inferred from studying human adolescents' behaviour in regards to gambling, especially the 'stupid tax' type. I have friends who think slots can be beaten and are consistent consumers.

Still, an exact neuropsychiatric mechanism needs to be formulated, otherwise it's just conventional wisdom. That alcohol makes you do stupid things and can wreck your life is nothing new.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2009

Marijuana may indeed be safer, but adolescents shouldn't be consuming either one. Evidence shows that the human brain continues to develop until age 25. So even the teen years aren't the best time to be getting "hammered", "stoned", or "wasted".

I often wonder how I might have turned out differently if I hadn't grown up in the 70s and started smoking pot socially after school when I was 14 and drinking alcohol pretty much every weekend after I was 16. Even though I found it no problem to get straight A grades through grad school, I've often struggled with depression, and now that I'm getting older I'm noticing some cognitive changes (such as not being able to remember the right word or name as quickly, making more spelling mistakes, etc). Some credible evidence points to early pot and alcohol use as possible factors in earlier-onset deficiencies in such areas as these.

For any intoxicants, I believe restricting legal useage until age 18 is still socially prudent.

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