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How heavy drinking in adolescents affects brain structure

New research sheds light on the impact that underage alcohol use can have on the developing brain. To understand the differences in brain structures, scientists imaged the brains of three groups of adolescents: those who were heavy drinkers at age 14, those who were heavy drinkers at age 16, and those who abstained from alcohol at all ages. The scientists had each group of adolescents perform a series of tasks that would be rewarded with candy once all tasks were completed. Researchers studied the success rate of the tasks to determine whether the areas of the brain that respond to rewards, as well as brain chemicals contained in those areas, present the same way as adults with alcohol use disorder. They found that the adolescent heavy drinkers scored higher on the tasks and, therefore, had a higher level of drive for rewards. Heavy drinkers also exhibited changes in their brain structures that were associated with compromised white matter, compared to the adolescents who abstained from drinking.

The paper, “Heavy drinking in adolescents is associated with change in brainstem microstructure and reward sensitivity,” was funded by the National Institutes of Health. It was published in the journal Addiction Biology.

Research & Resources