Study Defines Brain And Behavioral Effects Of Teen Binge Drinking

Episodes of heavy alcohol consumption leading to intoxication are associated with many health and safety problems, including unintentional injuries, sexual assault, domestic violence and alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking, as defined by SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), is drinking 5 or more alcoholic drinks on the same occasion on at least 1 day in the past 30 days, and this study shows just how dangerous it is for underage drinkers.

Adolescent binge drinking can disrupt gene regulation and brain development in ways that promote anxiety and excessive drinking behaviors that can persist into adulthood, according to a new study supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health. A report of the study, conducted in animals by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, appears online in the journal Neurobiology of Disease.

“These findings are an important contribution to our understanding of the alcohol-induced brain changes that make alcohol problems in adulthood more likely among young people who abuse alcohol,” said NIAAA Director George F. Koob, Ph.D.

Previous studies have shown that people who start drinking before the age of 15 are 4 times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives, and young people consume more than 90 percent of their alcohol by binge drinking. Currently, the age that youth in Richland County start drinking alcohol is 12 years old. (MPNA, 2014)

Researchers investigated the effects of intermittent binge alcohol exposure during the adolescent stage of development in rats. To model adolescent binge-drinking in humans, the researchers gave 28-day-old rats alcohol for two days in a row, followed by two days off, and repeated this pattern for 13 days. Some rats were followed into adulthood and observed for abnormal behaviors. They were offered both alcohol and water, and their alcohol-drinking behavior was monitored.

Rats exposed to alcohol during adolescence exhibited changes in behavior that lasted into adulthood, long after their adolescent binge exposure to alcohol had ended. For example, they showed increased anxiety-like behaviors and drank more alcohol in adulthood.

Prior research has implicated a brain structure known as the amygdala in anxiety and alcohol-drinking behaviors. When the amygdala of alcohol-exposed rats were studied, they found that a complex of DNA appeared to be tightly wrapped due to increased levels of a protein that causes DNA to be wound tighter around them. Collectively, these kinds of changes to DNA or its associated proteins that change its function do not affect the DNA sequence.

“Genes that lie within DNA that is tightly wrapped around the histones are less active than they are if the DNA is loosely wrapped,” explains Dr. Pandey. “The looser the DNA is coiled, the more accessible are the genes to the cellular machinery that makes relevant proteins.”

Dr. Pandey and his team found that the genetic changes they observed in alcohol-exposed rats were linked to the brain being derived of nerve cells needed to form new connections with each other. This persisted in adulthood, even if alcohol exposure was stopped weeks before. But they then showed that a drug, that blocks the activity of the protein that affects the DNA negatively, could “loosen” the DNA that increases the gene needed for nerve cell connectivity in those animals. These animals then also exhibited less anxiety and reduced alcohol intake.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, is the primary U.S. agency for conducting and supporting research on the causes, consequences, prevention, and treatment of alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and alcohol problems. NIAAA also disseminates research findings to general, professional, and academic audiences. (NIAAA, 2015)

If you would like more information on preventing youth alcohol use and what you can do to help someone, contact District II Alcohol and Drug Program, 102 N. Central Suite B in Sidney, 433-4097, or check out our prevention program on Facebook! Richland County STAND or Stand4youth.


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