Risk of alcoholism later in life following adolescent drinking

beer bottlesNew research suggests that adolescents who begin drinking during puberty are at a higher risk of suffering with alcohol problems and becoming addicted during adulthood.

A long-standing opinion amongst parents is that if they allow their children to drink supervised at an early age then this encourages their children to drink responsibly and have a better attitude towards alcohol as they get older.

However, a team of researchers from the University of Heidelberg in Germany may have now dispelled this theory as purely a myth and that neurodevelopmental changes that occur during puberty leave the body particularly susceptible to alcohol abuse later in life. The researchers say they have witnessed higher drinking levels in those who began drinking at an earlier stage.

Study co-author Miriam Schneider of the University of Heidelberg, comments: “Most teenagers have their first alcoholic drink during puberty; however, most research on the risks of early-onset alcohol use up to now has not focused on the pubertal stage during which the first alcoholic drink is consumed. Common thinking in alcohol research was that the earlier adolescents begin, the more deleterious become their drinking habits. However, a closer look at the statistics revealed a peak risk of alcohol use disorders for those beginning at 12 to 14 years of age, while even earlier beginners seemed to have a slightly lower risk.”

The longitudinal study was comprised of 283 participants – 152 females and 131 males. Each person was quizzed at ages 19, 22, and 23, with researchers issuing a questionnaire to calculate number of drinking days, amount of alcohol consumed, and any possible dangerous drinking levels. The results from a separate animal study were also used for comparative purposes and also showed a similar pattern. This particular study had analysed the voluntary ethanol consumption of Wistar 20 rat subjects at puberty and as they got older.

Schneider noted: “Both studies revealed that those individuals that initiated alcohol consumption during puberty tended to drink more and also more frequently than those starting after puberty.”

The point at which puberty begins can vary between each person, however Schneider was still able to observe that the stage of puberty appears to be the time when adolescents are most vulnerable – unsurprising considering the changes occurring in the growth and pruning of neurons (where the brain removes neurons no longer in use or useful) and synapses. Not only this, but puberty will cause adolescents to experience particularly high receptivity and development in their brain’s reward system.

Schneider continued: “Puberty is a very critical developmental period due to on-going neurodevelopmental processes in the brain. It is exactly during puberty that substances like drugs of abuse — alcohol, cannabis, etc., may induce the most destructive and also persistent effects on the still developing brain, which may in some cases even result in neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia or addictive disorders. Prevention work therefore needs to increase awareness of specific risks and vulnerability related to puberty.”

Dr Schneider’s colleague Dr Rainer Spanagel added: “Puberty is a phase in which the brain reward system undergoes major functional changes. Therefore, during puberty the brain is in a highly vulnerable state for any kind of reward, and drug rewards in particular.”

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