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Booze + Teens = Lifelong Problems

Heavy drinkers can lose memory, mental skills

SUNDAY, May 13 (HealthScout) -- Teens and alcohol may be an even more dangerous match than most people think.

Drinking heavily during adolescence not only can lead to car accidents, date rape and death, but new research claims that booze is bad for the brain, too.

Heavy drinking has great impact on young people, the researchers believe, because -- contrary to popular notion -- the brain is still developing.

"The frontal lobe, where our brain does things like planning and problem-solving and judgment, is still developing until we turn 16," says Dr. Susan Tapert, a psychiatric research fellow at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

"Drinking heavily during this time could mean lifelong problems," Tapert says.

For starters, the UCSD researchers gave a variety of thinking and memory tests to 15- and 16-year-olds, some who had alcohol problems and some who were non-drinkers.

"The alcoholics performed more poorly in trying to remember the information we had just taught them," Tapert says.

"While most of the non-drinking kids remembered 95 percent of the information, the drinkers remembered only 85 percent," she says. "That would be the difference between an A and B grade or a C and D."

But the problems multiply if young kids who booze keep drinking through their teen years. The proof, the UCSD researchers say, comes from examinations they did on parts of the brain that conduct mental calculations and memory functions.

The researchers tested women, 18 to 25 years of age, who'd been drinking heavily since adolescence. Along with a group of non-drinkers of the same age, they performed memory tasks while the researchers took pictures of their brains every three seconds using a special brain-imaging device known as a functional MRI.

"The brains of the alcohol-dependent women showed less use of oxygen in some parts of the brain that are critical to working memory and the ability to work with information you are holding onto in your mind -- like doing math in your head," Tapert says.

"The alcoholics also showed less use of oxygen in regions of the brain important for tasks like doing mechanical things or using a map," she says. "We didn't have to look hard to see these differences."

The findings appear in February's issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Measurable brain damage

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center say studies they've done revealed similar memory problems related to adolescent drinking.

For instance, the area of the brain that helps regulate memory, the hippocampus, was 10 percent smaller in alcoholic adolescents than in those who didn't drink, the researchers say. They compared a dozen alcoholic young people, from 13 to 20 years of age, with two dozen abstinent teens.

"We've known that alcohol causes brain damage for a long time, and we used to think it took a long time to do damage, but now we don't think so," says Dr. Michael DeBellis, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

"The hippocampus actively matures during adolescence, so it might be that adolescents are more sensitive to brain damage because the hippocampus is still developing," he says. "But, it might also mean that they are more susceptible to treatment."

"The way alcohol affects the brain is a complicated mechanism that deals with not only the effects of alcohol but with the effects of withdrawal," DeBellis says. "That's important because adolescents tend to binge drink."

"The bottom line is, if kids are drinking, they need to stop and get help," he says.

Drinking increases with age

So how many kids are drinking, and how much do they drink? According to numbers gathered in 1999 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:

  • The prevalence of drinking increases with age, from 3.9 percent of 12-year-olds to 66.6 percent of 21-year-olds.
  • More than 7 percent of 14-year-olds binge drink, defined as consuming five or more drinks on the same occasion.
  • More than one in five males age 12 to 20 binges, and roughly one in six females does.
  • About one in three whites age 13 to 20 drinks alcohol, while one in five blacks and Asians that age drinks.
  • About one in five white, Native American and Native Alaskan adolescents binges, and one in 10 black and one in 16 Asian adolescents binges.

"Our culture tends to accept that adolescence is naturally a tumultuous time," says Dr. Lynn E. Ponton, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, "but we've blurred the lines between normal, exploratory behavior and behavior that is dangerous."

Unfortunately, she says, adolescents are exposed to greater-than-ever risks at a time their brains are least capable of handling such complex tasks as risk assessment.

"For instance, asking how much can I drink, when faced with alcohol and driving, requires great risk-assessment skills," Ponton says.

What To Do

"Teens are watching and imitating, whether they admit it or not," Ponton says, "so the first thing parents should do is evaluate their own behaviors." Then, because teens always have needed to take risks, she says, "parents need to help them find healthy ways of doing so."

"Remember that teen risk-taking, whether healthy or unhealthy, is their attempt to carve out an identity and separate from the parents," she says.

For more on this aspect of adolescent behavior, check out material adapted from Ponton's book, The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do, and made available by the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families.

For a parent's guide to kids and alcohol, visit KidsHealth online. And for more on alcoholism and teens, check out information from Alcoholics Anonymous and the Alcoholism Index.

Or, you might want to read previous HealthScout articles on teens and alcohol.

SOURCES: Interviews with Susan Tapert, M.D., research fellow, department of psychiatry, University of California, San Diego; Lynn E. Ponton, M.D., professor of psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco; and Michael DeBellis, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh; February 2001 Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research
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