Abuse alcohol when you're young and you'll make unwise
decisions later on in life, a new study suggests.
It is well known that too much alcohol can slow down a person's ability to
think, react, and make decisions at the current moment. But scientists from the
University of Washington in Seattle say teenage drinking may actually lead to
bad decision making as an adult.
Previous studies have shown that drinking too much alcohol during
adolescence can interrupt critical brain development. Ilene Bernstein and
colleagues say their new experiment with rats shows that excessive alcohol use
actually "rewires" the brain to choose unwisely in the future.
The team provided young, adolescent rats access to gelatin mixed with
alcohol for 20 days. The rats gobbled down the alcoholic gelatin. Another group
was provided nonalcoholic gelatin treats for the same amount of time.
Three weeks later, when the rats were considered adults, they were given two
choices: Push a lever that always spits out two sugary treats, or push another
one that may give them four yummy pellets -- or none at all.
The rats that essentially got drunk during adolescence were much more likely
to push the lever that dispensed an uncertain number of treats -- a risky
choice. The other, non-alcohol rats, more consistently chose the lever that
would give them consistent rewards, in this case, two treats every time.
The animals' decisions appeared similar three months later, well into what's
considered rat adulthood.
Study researchers say their findings may help reveal a neurobiological link
between teenage alcohol abuse and bad decision making in adulthood.
"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," Bernstein says in a news release. "This research raises a
concern that if the brain is permanently changed by alcohol we need to place
more emphasis on preventing adolescent alcohol use."
The study appears in this week's online edition of the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences. The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism funded the experiment.
By Kelli Stacy
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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