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Drinking alcohol during adolescence modifies the brain

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We live in a society where alcohol consumption among young people has become popular and in which it is part of a large number of traditions and events. Used as an element to cause both mental and physical disinhibition and to socialize, with the passage of time the age of onset of alcohol consumption has been decreasing.

Currently, the average age at which one begins to drink these substances is around thirteen years. Although the immediate effects of poisoning are known, what is not so well known is that the habitual alcohol consumption, even without falling into dependence, causes changes in the brain structure of the teenagers.

These changes are especially noticeable and have a greater effect when consumption has occurred in individuals in the process of development. In other words, we can consider that alcohol use in adolescence causes brain changes.

Alcohol and adolescence: a bad combination

Alcohol is one of the most popular legal drugs in the world, frequently used in all kinds of contexts by the vast majority of the population. It is a substance that falls into the category of psycholeptics or depressants because its main effect is to cause a decrease in the activity of the nervous system.

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Although it seems paradoxical, in small doses this depressant effect produces an increased feeling of euphoria and well-being, since it inhibits subcortical territories in the first place and some of the inhibitory processes that we normally use to regulate our behavior. That is why it facilitates socialization and why the vast majority of people consume alcohol recreationally.

At high doses of alcohol, however, more properly depressive effects appear, with an alteration of the level of conscience, mental and physical slowness and loss of part of the reasoning and of the executive functions in general.

Given the reinforcing effects that appear with the consumption of small amounts of alcohol, adolescents, who find themselves searching for their identity through experimentation and the relationship with people far from authority figures and family members, decide to resort to drinking as a means of socialization and disinhibition of their impulses.

However, in addition to the risk of severe poisoning (in which ethyl coma and even death from cardiorespiratory arrest) and dependence that alcohol can cause in itself at any age, it must be taken into account what the adolescent brain is still developing, so that the consumption of substances with psychoactive properties can cause serious structural and functional alterations in your brain.

  • Related article: "The 5 types of alcoholism (and associated disorders)"

Changes in brain structure

The latest research carried out shows that alcohol consumption at an early age, when the brain has not yet fully developed, produces relevant long-term changes in the structure and configuration of neurons.

Specifically, the clearest effects occur in parts of the brainlinked to learning, memory and executive functions. In experiments carried out with rodents it has been shown that individuals who during the development stage have consumed relatively frequently in adulthood they have much more difficulty in memory tasks, anticipation and planning. These effects occur especially due to the affectation of the hippocampus, the limbic system and the frontal lobe.

Effects on the hippocampus

The alcohol makes the hippocampus not develop as much like that of individuals who have not used. The cells in this brain location appear immature and underdeveloped compared to those in adults who have not consumed alcohol frequently.

It has also been observed that long-term empowerment, one of the processes through which by strengthening synapse (the spaces through which neurons communicate with each other) we reinforce learning and, which is especially active during childhood and adolescence, is especially active. While this might seem positive, this activation reaches a level such that ends up collapsing and not producing further learning.

Based on the immaturity of the cells observed, it is speculated that the effect of alcohol, a depressant-type substance, probably alters the maturation process. In this sense, it has also been proven that the formation of new neurons and connections between them slows down and even stops.

The affectation of this area induces severe difficulties in the recognition and short term memory, with long-term memory generally preserved. More than forgetting the information withheld, the most important problems would be at the level of the ability to "record" and store new information.

Frontal involvement

In addition to the hippocampus, another of the areas that most alters before alcohol consumption in adolescence is the frontal lobe, the part of the brain most linked to impulse control, planning and executive functions in general, also affecting some facets of personality.

Long-term continued alcohol consumption generates alterations in this area, producing a high level of neuronal degeneration and death, especially in the prefrontal area. These alterations arise in people of any age who engage in abusive alcohol consumption during long periods, but nevertheless it has been found that in developing brains such as those of teenagers the level of neuronal death is much higher than in other stages.

This can cause now adolescents to have impulse control problems in the future, decreasing their capacity for inhibition, which in the long run they adopt a more aggressive and impulsive. It is also common for individuals who frequent alcohol during the early stages to have less capacity for concentration and planning than expected. Lastly, in the long run decreases the ability to set goals and self-motivation, falling into depressive and anxiety states is also more likely.

Effects on the brain's reward system

It has been shown that during adolescence dopamine receptors are especially activated and have a certain hypersensitivity to it. neurotransmitter, this being one of the reasons why adolescents in general tend to seek new experiences that stimulate them.

In this sense, another of the elements that the various studies carried out have reflected is that it is observed a higher frequency of substance dependence among subjects who started drinking before the age of fourteen with respect to those who had their first experiences with alcohol after their twenties (one time when the brain is already fully developed or close to completing its process of growth).

This fact can be linked, together with the alteration of the inhibition mechanisms inherent to the frontal affectation, to an alteration in the pathways that regulate emotions and sense of reward. Both acting on the GABA as the inhibition of NMDA glutamate receptors produced by alcohol induces an increase in dopaminergic activity in the striatum, which is already hypersensitized due to the development process can lead to a facility to fix behaviors that stimulate it even more, such as alcohol consumption or other substances.

  • You may be interested: "The cause of reckless and impulsive behavior due to alcohol consumption is found in a gene mutation"

Bibliographic references:

  • Calvo, H.B. (2009). Alcohol and neuropsychology. Revista Neuropsicología, Neuropsiquiatría y Neurosciencias, vol.9, Nº2: pp. 53-76.
  • Risher, M.L.; Fleming, R.L.; Risherm W.C.; Miller, K.M.; Klein, R.C.; Wills, T.; Acheson, S.K.; Moore, S.D.; Wilson, W.A.; Eroglu, C. & Swartzwelder, H.S. (2015). Adolescent intermittent alcohol exposure: persistence of structiral and functional hippocampal abnosrmalities into adulthood. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research; 39 (6): 989-97.
  • Stephens, D.N. and Duka, T. (2008). Cognitive and emotional consequences of binge drinking: role of amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, 363, 3169-3179.
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