Alcohol Use Awareness for Adolescents and Young Adults
April is Alcohol Awareness Month, and for 2019 the focused on addressing underage drinking. With that in mind, it is important to talk about some of the unique risks young people face when using alcohol. There are plenty of adverse effects for anyone who abuses alcohol, both physical and mental. Not only is heavy alcohol use exceedingly dangerous among adolescents and young adults, but new research shows that it can actually slow the rate of growth in developing brains.
Alcohol-related brain damage is nothing new. It makes sense that alcohol impacts the brain, considering the impairing effects people experience when using it. Subsequently, excessive drinking is related to various forms of brain damage. But for young people, these effects can be even more devastating.
The Primate Brain Study
This new study used research on rhesus macaque monkeys at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. It was recently published in the journal eNeuro. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) funded the study.
According to the data, for every gram of alcohol consumed per kilogram of body weight, heavy alcohol use reduced the rate of brain growth by 0.25 milliliters per year. In the case of humans, that translates to four beers per day. The researchers conclude:
“Chronic alcohol self-intoxication reduced the growth rate of brain, cerebral white matter and subcortical thalamus.”
Throughout the study, 71 rhesus macaques voluntarily consumed ethanol or beverage alcohol. Meanwhile, researchers measured their brain growth through magnetic resonance imaging. The scientists were able to precisely measure:
- Alcohol intake
- Daily schedules
- Overall health care
Therefore, they were able to rule out factors that tend to confound results in observational studies involving people. These findings further validate previous research on the effects of alcohol use on brain development in people.
Christopher Kroenke, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Division of Neuroscience at the primate center is one co-author of the study. Kroenke states:
“Human studies are based on self-reporting of underage drinkers. Our measures pinpoint alcohol drinking with the impaired brain growth.”
Furthermore, this is the first to characterize normal brain growth of 1 milliliter per 1.87 years in rhesus macaques in late adolescence and early adulthood. The research also further reveals a decrease in the volume of distinct brain areas relating to voluntary consumption of ethanol.
So what does this all mean? Essentially, the study suggests that when a young brain is in a certain stage of development, alcohol consumption significantly hinders the brain’s development. This isn’t a brand new concept, but the research data adds more depth.
Finding Hope in Brain Recovery
But the researchers didn’t only focus on the bad news. Lead author Tatiana Shnitko, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the Division of Neuroscience at the primate center, notes that the brain has shown a capacity to at least partially recover from the damage in previous studies, following the discontinuation of alcohol consumption. In other words, if one stops heavy alcohol use, it is possible the brain could begin to repair itself.
However, at this point, it’s not clear if there will be long-term effects on mental functions once the brain ends this growth phase. Researchers add that the next stage will explore that question. Shnitko adds,
“This is the age range when the brain is being fine-tuned to fit adult responsibilities. The question is, does alcohol exposure during this age range alter the lifetime learning ability of individuals?”
Hopefully, as time passes the brain will be able to bounce back from the damage without permanently crippling mental functions. However, for now, the risk seems serious enough. If young people engage in heavy alcohol consumption, they hinder the development of their brain at a crucial stage. While the brain can recover if young people cease the heavy consumption of alcohol, there is no certainty that they will not suffer long-term mental impairment.
Fighting Underage Drinking and Alcohol Addiction
Heavy drinking is actually a pretty serious issue with young people. Statistics show that around 90% of alcohol consumed by underage drinkers actually meets the criteria for binge-drinking. Therefore, it is safe to say a lot of adolescents and young adults in America are stunting their own brain development by drinking. Many young people do so without realizing the long-term impact it could have on their bodies and minds.
Sadly, there are no cures for alcohol-related brain damage. This is just another reason why fighting underage drinking is so important. Curbing excessive underage drinking is vital to preventing the development of severe health issues. One of the conditions relating to excessive drinking at a young age is alcohol use disorder (AUD). For some young people, alcohol abuse can quickly lead to serious addiction.
Part of addressing the problem is by connecting adolescents and young adults with access to education and intervention resources. Beyond that, people of all ages who suffer from alcohol use disorder should have access to comprehensive treatment options. With the right kind of quality care, young adults can begin the process of recovery that allows the brain to heal itself.
Experts recommend that those trying to overcome alcohol abuse or AUD seek medical detox to safely discontinue alcohol use. Trying to stop abruptly can be extremely dangerous, depending on the level of dependence. Additionally, inpatient levels of care often provide a safe and secure environment to build a foundation for recovery.