Connecting alcohol use in adolescence with risky behavior in adulthood

May 1, 2014

A new study conducted in rats offers clues about how teen drinking alters brain chemistry, suggesting early alcohol use has long-term effects on decision making.

"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. "This study points to the potential on in adolescence, a period of exploration when young adults are often experiencing alcohol for the first time."

The researchers gave alcohol-laced "Jell-O shots" to a group of rats 30-50 days of age, the equivalent of the teen years in humans. During this period, the rats were given access to the Jell-O shots 24 hours per day. Once the rats reached adulthood, they were given tests offering the opportunity to take a low risk to get a small treat or take a much higher risk to get a larger treat.

The rats exposed to alcohol during adolescence were consistently more inclined to take the high risk/high reward option, even when the safer option would have given them more treats overall. "This increase in maladaptive risk taking suggests that the alcohol exposure changed the way the animals make decisions," said Schindler.

To explain the phenomenon, the research team dug deeper into the ' . They traced the effect 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.

Rats exposed to alcohol showed greater dopamine surges and changes in certain types of GABA receptors, suggesting that early alcohol exposure may take the breaks off of the dopamine system.

The findings could 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 . But it's sort of a chicken-and-egg problem, because it's been unclear whether some people have a natural tendency toward , or if alcohol itself has an effect on the brain," said Schindler.

The study bolsters the evidence that early in life can have long-term effects on risk taking and , which can increase a person's risk for substance abuse problems.

Alcohol abuse represents a major social, economic and public health problem. About 18 million people in the United States have an alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug among adolescents. Seventy percent of 12th-graders and one-third of 8th-graders in the United States have had some exposure to alcohol during their lifetimes, according to a 2011 Monitoring the Future survey.

Explore further: Study reveals how smoking increases vulnerability to alcohol abuse

More information: Abigail Schindler presented the findings during the Experimental Biology 2014 meeting on Sunday, April 27 at the Opioids and Alcohol poster session in Exhibit Halls A-D (Poster # B256) and on Monday, April 27 at the Neuropharmacology Division Postdoctoral Scientist Award Finalists oral session in Room 2, San Diego Convention Center.

Related Stories

Study reveals how smoking increases vulnerability to alcohol abuse

July 18, 2013
Smoking is a well-known risk factor for subsequent alcohol abuse, but the mechanisms underlying this link are unknown. Now researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Neuron on July 18 show in a study conducted in rats ...

Neuroscientists finds lateral habenula controls sensitivity to negative effects of drinking alcohol

April 2, 2014
As recovering spring breakers are regretting binge drinking escapades, it may be hard for them to appreciate that there is a positive side to the nausea, sleepiness, and stumbling. University of Utah neuroscientists report ...

Study suggests fish oil could help protect alcohol abusers from dementia

September 8, 2013
A Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine study suggests that omega-3 fish oil might help protect against alcohol-related dementia.

Alcoholism could be linked to a hyper-active brain dopamine system

August 2, 2013
Research from McGill University suggests that people who are vulnerable to developing alcoholism exhibit a distinctive brain response when drinking alcohol, according to a new study by Prof. Marco Leyton, of McGill University's ...

Potential new drug for alcohol dependence

July 27, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Research from Karolinska Institutet has identified a monoamine stabiliser as a potential new drug for the treatment of alcohol dependence. Tested on rats, whose reward system is gradually blunted by long-term ...

Recommended for you

Why sugary drinks and protein-rich meals don't go well together

July 20, 2017
Having a sugar-sweetened drink with a high-protein meal may negatively affect energy balance, alter food preferences and cause the body to store more fat, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Nutrition.

Opioids and obesity, not 'despair deaths,' raising mortality rates for white Americans

July 20, 2017
Drug-related deaths among middle-aged white men increased more than 25-fold between 1980 and 2014, with the bulk of that spike occurring since the mid-1990s when addictive prescription opioids became broadly available, according ...

Aging Americans enjoy longer life, better health when avoiding three risky behaviors

July 20, 2017
We've heard it before from our doctors and other health experts: Keep your weight down, don't smoke and cut back on the alcohol if you want to live longer.

Parents have critical role in preventing teen drinking

July 20, 2017
Fewer teenagers are drinking alcohol but more needs to be done to curb the drinking habits of Australian school students, based on the findings of the latest study by Adelaide researchers.

Fresh fish oil lowers diabetes risk in rat offspring

July 19, 2017
Fresh fish oil given to overweight pregnant rats prevented their offspring from developing a major diabetes risk factor, Auckland researchers have found.

High-dose vitamin D doesn't appear to reduce the winter sniffles for children

July 18, 2017
Giving children high doses of vitamin D doesn't appear to reduce the winter sniffles, a new study has found.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.