Teen binge drinking: the rat experiment
As a teen I found myself drunk, making uninformed and illogical decisions on a regular basis, and of course, waking up with no memory of the previous nights events. There is nothing worse than that feeling of the ‘unknown’ and the anxiety that comes with it. With easy access to alcohol and with an ‘I can do what I want’ mentality, many teenagers find themselves binge drinking frequently. So what is binge drinking exactly? Binge drinking can be defined as drinking 4 or more drinks in the span of 2 hours. This kind of drinking can easily lead to dangerous situations and comes with severe consequences.
Research has proven that binge drinking during the teenage years can cause brain changes that continue into adulthood.
Past research has documented the effects of binge drinking on the adolescent brain. This is a time when the brain is still developing. Heavy alcohol drinking amongst teenagers causes change in myelin. This is the protective coating that surrounds nerve fibres that boost communication between neurons, essentially causing cognitive impairment later in life. This is a debatable topic amongst medical scholars.
Researching binge drinking in adolescent rats
Heather Richardson, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts has initiated research around this controversial topic. Richardson and her colleagues researched the effects of alcohol in the brain of adolescent male rats.
For 2 weeks, a group of rats had access to sweetened alcohol every day. The other group only had access to sweetened water. Much like teenagers, rats prefer sweet beverages. With this in mind they were more than happy to work for their drink. They did so by pressing a level that granted them access to the beverage. This unlimited access triggered high levels of voluntary alcohol consumption – similar to the binge drinking of teenagers.
Through this process it was proved that adolescent binge drinking does cause lasting myelin deficits in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. At the end of the study, researchers analysed the myelin levels in the brain of the rats. The rats that drank the alcohol everyday had severely reduced myelin in the prefrontal cortex – a region of the brain that is vital in decision making and the regulation of emotion.
The sober rats? Well, they had no such issues except maybe a heavy sugar high.
The final say
Richardson is quotes as saying:
“Our study provides novel data demonstrating that alcohol drinking in early adolescence causes lasting myelin deficits in the prefrontal cortex. These findings suggest that alcohol may negatively affect brain development in humans and have long-term consequences on areas of the brain that are important for controlling impulses and making decisions.”
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