Heavy drinking in teen years causes changes in brain linked to psychological problems in adulthood

CHICAGO — Teenage drinking can cause a good deal of problems in the short term, but now a new study has found that it may also cause long lasting changes in teens’ brains many years after that first nasty hangover wears off.

Drinking, specifically binge drinking, in adolescence has lasting effects on the brain’s wiring in its emotional centers and is related to an increased risk of psychological problems and alcohol abuse later in life, according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

The researchers at UIC’s Center for Alcohol Research in Epigenetics found that some of these lasting brain changes are due to epigenetic changes that affect a protein needed in the formation and maintenance of neural connections in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for fear, anxiety, and emotion.

For the study, the researchers examined human amygdala tissue from 11 deceased individuals who started drinking heavily before they were 21 years old (early-onset drinkers), and 11 people who started drinking regularly after the age of 21 (late-onset drinkers). As a control, they also studied the tissue from 22 people with no history of alcohol abuse disorder.

They found that early-onset drinkers had about 30% more of a molecule found in our RNA that regulates a protein, known as BDNF, crucial for the normal formation and maintenance of brain synapses. But scientists say when there was more of this molecule, there was less BDNF. This reduction wasn’t observed in late-onset drinkers or those with no alcohol abuse disorder.

“BDNF is needed for normal development in the brain and for connections to form between neurons,” explains corresponding author Subhash Pandey, the director of the UIC Center for Alcohol Research, in a statement. “If levels are lowered due to alcohol exposure, then the brain will not develop normally, and we see that in these brain samples where there are abnormalities in another synaptic gene, Arc, possibly making abnormal connections between neurons.”

These changes can cause early onset drinkers’ amygdalae to function improperly, resulting in a propensity for stress, anxiety, and irrational emotions later on in life. This could potentially lead to a vicious cycle of more alcohol use in order to cope with those feelings, according to Pandey.

The study is published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

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