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Dr. Spear: Graphic of Science 5

Alcohol and the young brain

Linda Spear is finding evidence that alcohol's physiological affects on adolescents can create patterns that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

The dangers of youthful drinking extend far beyond the risk of auto accidents. In fact, alcohol may change the young brain in ways that cause problems throughout life.

Distinguished professor of psychology Linda Spear, a noted authority on the effects of alcohol on the adolescent, has recorded data that shows typical adolescents are very insensitive to many of the cues signaling when a person has had enough to drink. Without those warning signs, adolescents tend to drink more.

"And that's a problem," Spear says. "Because high levels of alcohol are toxic."

It's also a problem because the more you consume, the less you feel alcohol's effects. In young drinkers, this tolerance may become stamped upon the brain, possibly creating the conditions for alcohol addiction.

"It's not always the case," Spear says, "but it does seem that there are a number of circumstances in which you may be 'adolescentizing' the alcohol response into adulthood with this chronic exposure to alcohol during adolescence."

Hoping to better understand how youthful drinking might shape the adult brain, Spear has joined a consortium of scientists from throughout the United States to examine long-term effects on the brain and behavior of adolescent rats exposed to a great deal of alcohol — levels resembling repeated binge exposures.

"We've found that shortly after termination of alcohol exposure, the adolescent animals are socially anxious, and they're unusually sensitive to the restoration of social behavior by alcohol," Spear says. She and colleague Elena Varlinskaya, a research professor at Binghamton, hypothesize that when the adolescent drinkers become adults they will still grow anxious quickly as alcohol leaves their systems. When they drink again, they will relax and start to socialize, finding alcohol especially effective for reducing social anxiety.

In 2010, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism awarded a five-year, $8.5 million grant to fund the Developmental Exposure Alcohol Research Center with Spear as its scientific director.

Ultimately, scientists in her field want to learn how to make the most of adolescence, Spear says. Young people need to understand that their choices have a serious impact. The message is: "You're different from the adults," she says. "And that's kind of cool, because you may be able to build the brain the way you want. So, what do you want?"


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Last Updated: 3/1/17