New Study Reveals Detrimental Effects of Heavy Alcohol Use On Adolescent Brains

By Britni de la Cretaz 01/23/17

The first-of-its-kind study examined the long-term impact that alcohol has on adolescents.

Girl drinking alcohol at table.

A new study found that heavy alcohol use altered brain activity in adolescents, even when those adolescents did not meet the criteria for a substance use disorder.

The study comes from the University of Eastern Finland and was published in the journal Addiction Biology. Researchers followed 27 teens, ages 13-18, and then analyzed their brain activity from ages 23-28. They also followed 25 controls of the same age, gender, and education, who reported little to no alcohol use.

The brain activity was monitored using “transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, and simultaneous electroencephalogram, or EEG,” according to UPI. These tests monitor how different parts of the brain respond to electrical stimuli.

According to UPI, researchers found that there was greater “electrical activity in the cortex and greater activity of the gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, neurotransmission system of heavy alcohol users ... GABA is a vital neurotransmitter that inhibits brain and central nervous system function and may cause anxiety, depression and the pathogenesis of numerous neurological disorders.”

This is not the first study that looked at the effects of alcohol use on adolescents. According to Science Daily, in an earlier study completed at the University of Eastern Finland, also within the Adolescents and Alcohol Study, thinning of the cortex "was observable in young people who had been heavy drinkers throughout their adolescence."

Another study out of Finland found that teens who abuse alcohol were more likely to be aggressive, smoke cigarettes, and engage in attention-seeking behavior. Another study found that teens as young as 13 were exposed to alcohol advertisements online.

Findings indicate that for young people whose brains are still developing, heavy alcohol use can lead to long-term damage and be extremely detrimental.

The researchers muse that the study's findings may beg the question of whether the diagnostic criteria for substance use disorders should be adjusted for adolescents, and whether they should be referred to treatment more quickly, according to UPI. Past studies have shown that while 35% of teens had used alcohol in the past year, only 10% of teens receive treatment for substance use disorder. Perhaps the number should be higher.

The most common reason cited for teens not receiving treatment was that they did not see a need for it, while others said they were not ready to stop using or did not want others to find out about their problem.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
britni headshot.png

Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.