Drinking alcohol in adolescence changes the brain

We live in a society in which 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 induce mental and physical disinhibition and to socialize, over time the age of onset of alcohol consumption has decreased.

Currently, the average age at which one begins to drink these substances is about thirteen. While the immediate effects of intoxication are known, what is less known is that habitual alcohol consumption, even without becoming addicted, causes changes in the brain structure of adolescents.

These changes are particularly noticeable and have the greatest effect when consumption has taken place in developing individuals. In other words, we can consider that alcohol consumption in adolescence causes brain changes.

Alcohol and adolescence: the wrong combination

Alcohol is one of the most popular legal drugs in the world, frequently used in all kinds of settings 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.

Although it seems paradoxical, in small doses says depressant effect it produces an increase in the feeling of euphoria and well-being, Since it mainly inhibits subcortical territories and some of the inhibitory processes that we normally use to regulate our behavior. This is why it facilitates socialization, just like the vast majority of people consume alcohol for recreational purposes.

At high doses of alcohol, however, more distinctly depressive effects appear, with altered level of consciousness, mental and physical sluggishness, and loss of part of reasoning and executive functions in general.

Due to the strengthening effects that appear with the consumption of small amounts of alcohol, it is common in adolescents, who they find themselves in search of their identity through experimentation and by forging links with people distant from figures of authority and family, decide to resort to alcohol as a means of socializing and uninhibiting their impulses.

However, besides the risk of severe intoxication (in which they can appear in alcoholic coma and even death from cardiopulmonary arrest) and the dependence which in itself can cause alcohol at any age, one should beware of the ‘mind that 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.

    Changes in the structure of the brain

    Recent research shows that alcohol consumption at an early age, in which the brain has not yet fully developed, Produces significant long-term changes in the structure and configuration of neurons.

    Specifically, the most obvious effects occur in certain parts of the brain related to learning, memory and executive functions. In rodent experiments, it has been shown that individuals who, in the developmental stage, have consumed relatively frequently in the adult stage have much more difficulty in the tasks of memory, anticipation and planning. These effects occur in particular due to involvement of the hippocampus, limbic system and frontal lobe.

    Effects on the hippocampus

    alcohol causes the hippocampus to not develop as much like that of individuals who have not consumed. 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 potentiation, one of the processes by which, through the strengthening of synapses (the spaces through which neurons communicate with each other), we enhance learning and is particularly active during childhood and adolescence, is particularly active. Although it may sound positive, this activation reaches such a level that it ends up collapsing and no longer produces learning.

    Depending on the immaturity of the cells observed, it is believed that the effect of alcohol, a depressant-like substance, is likely to impair the maturation process. In this regard, it has also been proven that the formation of new neurons and the connections between them slows down and even stops.

    The involvement of this area induces serious difficulties of recognition and short-term memory, the long-term memory being generally preserved. Rather than forgetting about retained information, the most important issues would arise in terms of the ability to “record” and store new information.

    Frontal involvement

    In addition to the hippocampus, another area that is most affected by alcohol consumption in adolescence is the frontal lobe, the part of the brain most closely related to impulse control, planning and general executive functions, Also affecting certain facets of the personality.

    Continued long-term alcohol consumption causes alterations in this area, leading to a high level of neuronal degeneration and death, especially in the prefrontal area. These disorders occur in people of any age who indulge in alcohol abuse for long periods of time, but nonetheless, it has been found that in developing brain like adolescents the level of neuronal death is much higher than in other stages.

    This can cause teens to have problems with impulse control in the future, decreasing their ability to inhibit, so that in the long run they adopt a more aggressive and impulsive attitude. It is also common for people who drink alcohol during the early stages to have lower ability to concentrate and plan than expected. Finally, in the long run decreases the ability to set goals and self-motivation, Also be more likely to fall into depressive and anxious states.

    Effects on the brain’s reward system

    It has been shown that during adolescence, dopamine receptors are particularly activated and exhibit some hypersensitivity to this neurotransmitter, which is one of the reasons why adolescents in general tend to seek out new experiences that stimulate them.

    In this sense, another element that the different studies have reflected is that it is observed a higher frequency of substance dependence in people who started drinking before the age of fourteen with regard to those who have had their first experiences with alcohol from the age of twenty (a time when the brain is already fully developed or about to conclude its development process).

    This fact may be linked, along with the alteration of the inhibitory mechanisms inherent in frontal involvement, to an alteration in the regulatory pathways of emotions and the feeling of reward. The action on GABA and the inhibition of the alcohol-producing glutamate NMDA receptors induce an increase in dopaminergic activity in the striatum, which being already hypersensitized due to the developmental process can lead to an ease in correcting them. behaviors that stimulate her even more, such as consuming alcohol or other substances.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Calvo, HB (2009). Alcohol and neuropsychology. Journal of Neuropsychology, Neuropsychiatry and Neurosciences, vol.9, Nº2: p. 53-76.
      • Risher, ML; Fleming, RL; Risherm sink; Miller, KM; Klein, RC; Wills, T .; Acheson, SK; Moore, SD; Wilson, WA; Eroglu, C. and Swartzwelder, HS (2015). Intermittent exposure to alcohol in adolescence: persistence of structural abnormalities and of the hippocampus in adulthood. Alcoholism: clinical and experimental research; 39 (6): 989-97.
      • Stephens, DN and Duka, T. (2008). Cognitive and emotional consequences of excessive alcohol consumption: role of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, 363, 3169-3179.

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