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Alcoholism & Addiction

Study Discovers Difference in Alcohol Response in Teens versus Adults

Heavy episodic drinking among teens carries with it a higher risk of developing alcohol-related problems. Teens who initiate drinking early are likely to continue drinking well into adulthood, exposing themselves longer to the alcohol that can increase risk for liver damage and certain cancers.

Understanding the biological effects of heavy drinking during the teen years is important in developing effective educational tools for encouraging responsible alcohol choices by teens and encouraging parents to monitor their children’s behavior closely. Researchers have recently discovered an explanation for one effect that may contribute to the choices that teens make to consume large quantities of alcohol.

While researchers have known that teens are less sensitive than adults to the motor-impairing effects of alcohol, the reason for the difference in the brain’s response has been unclear. Neuroscientists at Baylor University have identified cellular and molecular mechanisms in teens that may cause the lessen effects of motor impairment.

The study, which appears online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, provides insight into the differences between adults and teens in their physical response to binge drinking. Dr. Doug Matthews, a research scientist at Baylor and the lead author of the study, reports that the studies findings are helpful for explaining why teens sometimes drink alcohol to dangerous levels. Matthews indicates that hay alcohol consumption increases in adolescence and peaks between 21 and 25 years, making it important to understand the underlying mechanisms.

The mechanisms studied by the research team center on the firing rate of a neuron called the cerebellar Purkinje neuron. In adolescent animal models, the neuron was insensitive to large alcohol doses, while in adults the neuron’s firing rate was significantly depressed.

In adults, the spontaneous firing rate from the Purkinje neurons decreased about 20 percent, which represents significant motor impairment. By contrast the teens did show a slight motor impairment, but the activity measured involving the Pukinje neuron did not significantly change when alcohol was administered to the subject. The adolescent animal model instead showed a five percent increase in firing rate.

The researchers believe that the results examined in this study provide some information about the differences between effects of alcohol in adults and teens. However, many other systems are affected by alcohol and the differences between adults and teens are likely very complex and cannot be fully explained by the Purkinje neuron. There are likely to be contributions from other systems in the body to the different behaviors exhibited by teens and adults.

 

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