Monday, July 24th, 2017

Effects of alcohol on the underdeveloped brain

June 4, 2012 by  
Filed under Alcohol

Contrary to popular belief, alcohol is a drug. Many times we segment drugs and alcohol into separate categories when in fact they are both substances that can cause chemical changes in the body and create addiction. Alcohol changes the brain in such a way that it causes cravings and associations with habits of drug use, people, places and things which turn into addiction. Most alcoholic addictions start in adolescents with the statistics showing that the average age a person takes their first drink has dropped from age 17 in 1965 top age 14 in 2003. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking. Alcoholism in adolescents and its’ effect on their brain and behaviors has become a deadly situation.

There are three core areas of the brain that are affected by alcohol abuse: brain stem, limbic system, and the cerebral cortex. Drinking alcohol replaces the brains natural reward system – dopamine at astronomical levels. The long-term abuse of alcohol causes the brain to stop producing dopamine at functional levels. Feeling pleasure and happiness from normal activities like exercising are replaced by drinking large amounts of alcohol. When it gets to this point, the alcoholic has built up a tolerance to large amounts of alcohol which is both unhealthy and potentially fatal. A high tolerance means when an alcoholic is not drinking they are more likely to feel depressed, tired, unmotivated and looking to drink just to feel some level of normalcy. [NIDA, Drugs and the Brain, August 2010]

The adolescent brain is not fully developed and there are many learned behaviors that develop during pre-teen and teen years that are made to enable ones survival skills. The adolescent experience is one filled with many social influences and decision making- many which include drugs and alcohol. There has been much research done on the adolescent brain of animals that function in similar ways as the human brain does. This research along with other documented patterns of drug and alcohol use amongst teens suggests that alcohol has a profound effect on the underdeveloped brain.  A specific study, “Alcohol’s Effect on the Adolescent Brain – What Can Be Learned From Animal Models” done by Dr. Susanne Hiller-Sturmhöfel and Dr. H. Scott Swartzwelder made some great findings on the effects of alcohol in the adolescent brain.

Exercepts from Alcohol’s Effect on the Adolescent Brain – What Can Be Learned From Animal Models:

“Adolescence is such a critical phase in brain development that the actions of alcohol and other drugs on the brain can be assumed to have a particularly profound impact during this developmental period. Indeed, research has shown that compared with the adult brain, the adolescent brain is particularly sensitive to some effects of alcohol, yet more resistant to other effects. Much of this research, especially investigations of specific effects of acute alcohol administration, has been conducted in animals because studies involving administration of alcohol to human adolescents are subject to very stringent regulations, and certain studies of alcohol’s effects on the adolescent brain can be conducted only using animal models. This article reviews some of the differences in alcohol’s effects on the adolescent and adult brain that were identified using these animal models….”

“Two important neurotransmitter systems that undergo substantial changes during adolescence and are affected by alcohol consumption are dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Dopamine can have both excitatory and inhibitory effects, depending on the cells it acts on. Dopamine-releasing and dopamine-receiving cells are found in numerous brain areas. One prominent region, which lies deep within the brain, is called the striatum. It consists of several components that are involved in behaviors such as learning to automatically execute complex movements triggered by a voluntary command (e.g., driving a car). Another dopamine-using area is the nucleus accumbens, which plays a role in learning and performing certain behaviors in response to incentive stimuli (i.e., motivation) (Di Chiara 1997). Activity in the nucleus accumbens in part accounts for the fact that people perceive the effects of drinking alcohol or taking other drugs as pleasurable (Di Chiara 1997).”

The effects of alcohol on the underdeveloped brain are profound and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Alcohol can inhibit an adolescent’s learning curve, social skills and later in life their ability to function as an adult.

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