By: Erika Dunayer, Ivanhoe Health Correspondent
(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- New research is proving that drinking in teens is affecting brain development and may also help predict which kids are at risk of becoming problem drinkers.
Using special MRI scans, researchers looked at forty 12 to 16-year-olds who had not started drinking , then followed them for about 3 years and scanned them again. Half of the teens started to drink alcohol fairly heavily during this interval. The investigators found that kids who had initially showed less activation in certain brain areas were at greater risk for becoming heavy drinkers in the next three years.
Once the teens started drinking, their brains showed more activity as they tried to perform memory tests. This pattern of heavy drinking typically included episodes of having four or more drinks on an occasion for females, and five or more drinks for males.
"For younger adolescents we would expect more activation during a task, as you get older your brain specializes in different regions and takes on new roles. Therefore we would expect older adolescents to have less activation," Lindsay M. Squeglia, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Diego, told Ivanhoe.
"What we found was that in younger adolescents, they had less activation to do the task before they ever drink and then over time they show greater activation towards the task which is the opposite of what we would expect," Squeglia said.
The findings add to evidence that heavy drinking has consequences for teenagers' developing brains. But they also add a new layer: there may be brain activity patterns that predict which kids are at increased risk for heavy drinking.
That doesn't mean teenagers are going to start having MRI scans of their brains to see which ones might start drinking. But the findings do give clues into the biological origins of kids' problem drinking. These findings also reinforce the message that heavy drinking may affect young people's brains right at the time when they need to be working efficiently.
"We could try to be proactive by trying to create intervention techniques that are targeted towards adolescents before they ever start drinking," Squeglia said. "These kids are preparing for college, learning to drive, and trying to set up their future career paths. This is a very important developmental period for the brain and alcohol is affecting that normal development."
"Although they look and act like adults, their brains are still undergoing major developments. Brain development doesn't actually end until the mid-twenties," Squeglia concluded.
All of the study participants were healthy, well-functioning kids. It's possible that teens with certain disorders -- like depression or ADHD -- might show greater effects from heavy drinking.
Source: Interview with Lindsay M. Squeglia, Ph.D., August 2012