Binge drinking during adolescence can have lasting effects on brain function, according to a new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience.
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Past research has documented the effects of binge drinking on the brain - particularly during adolescence - when the brain is still developing. Studies have linked heavy alcohol use among teenagers to changes in myelin - the protective coating surrounding nerve fibers that boosts communication between neurons - and cognitive impairment later in life.
But according to study co-author Heather Richardson, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it has been unclear whether such brain changes are a direct result of alcohol consumption or other factors.
With a view to finding out, Richardson and colleagues assessed the effects of alcohol consumption on the brains of male adolescent rats.
At the end of the study period, the researchers analyzed the brains of the rats - particularly their levels of myelin.
They found that the rats that drank the sweetened alcohol every day for 2 weeks had reduced myelin in the prefrontal cortex of the brain - a region of the brain crucial for decision making and the regulation of emotions - compared with the rats that drank the sweetened water.
When assessing myelin levels in the rats' brains months later - when they had reached adulthood - they found the rats that had consumed the sweetened alcohol during adolescence continued to show reduced myelin levels in the prefrontal cortex.
The adult rats that had consumed alcohol during adolescence displayed a poorer performance on this task, compared with the adult rats that drank the sweetened water during adolescence.
Richardson and colleagues say their findings indicate that as well as causing lasting structural damage to the brain, binge drinking during adolescence may impair cognitive functions associated with learning and memory later in life.
The team says they hope their findings will pave the way for new strategies to treat alcohol use disorders. In addition, they say that "results from this work focusing on the prefrontal cortex could also help us better understand the function of myelin and how myelin deficits may contribute to other psychiatric conditions associated with prefrontal impairments, such as impulsivity, Tourette syndrome and schizophrenia."