Research: Early alcohol misuse and the potential for brain damage

This paper published in Cortex, an international journal devoted to the study of cognition and of the relationship between the nervous system and mental processes, looks at early alcohol use and brain damage and tries to answer the question are young alcohol misusers on the same pathway as those who eventually develop alcohol-related brain damage.

Their reading of the evidence suggests adolescents and young adults who drink to excess may be.  They say:

young people who drink excessively are at risk of functional and structural brain damage, which may have long lasting adverse consequences

They draw five conclusions from their review.

  1. We should be aware that young people seem to drink in different ways to adults – they drink less frequency but drink more on each occasion, often until they are drunk.  This places them at higher risk.
  2. Adolescence and early adulthood is a critical period for brain development, and this is associated with risk taking behaviours.  The authors note that “females and males may be differentially affected or have different levels of risk.”
  3. Heavy alcohol use in young people may affect brain maturation.  But the authors are cautious in drawing that conclusion pointing out that the damage may pre-date alcohol misuse, and that the brain is going through significant change at this point.
  4. Early brain changes may increase the likelihood of alcohol problems in later life.
  5. We need more prevention and early intervention strategies to be developed.  These need to target (a) delaying the onset of use and reducing binge drinking, (b) identifying those young people experiencing early onset ‘alcohol-induced brain impairment’, and (c) more effective early intervention and treatment options for young people.

In the accompanying press release the authors suggests there are limitations to the use of the law to raise the age at which young people drink.  They say:

In Australia the legal drinking age is 18, three years earlier than in the US. Despite the difference in legal drinking age, the age of first use (and associated problems) is the same between the two countries.

I’ve included a set of slides below from our colleagues at Mentor International which looks brain development and substance misuse in adolescence.

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