Scientists at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are working with the state government on an initiative to educate parents and the public as a whole about the effect of alcohol on adolescent brains.
The report, which was requested by Governor Pat McCrory in December, summarized the conclusions reached by researchers in North Carolina and around the country thus far about the impact of binge drinking on brain development in adolescents. The researchers from Duke and UNC recently presented the findings to the Governor’s Substance Abuse and Underage Drinking Prevention and Treatment Task Force, as part of its efforts to inform parents in North Carolina of the risks of their children binge drinking.
“Part of our responsibility as a state is to make sure that parents and others concerned with underage drinking have access to a wealth of knowledge to help them understand the dangers, and to have conversations with their children,” said Luther Snyder, executive director of the North Carolina Initiative to Reduce Underage Drinking.
Snyder noted that studies consistently show that parental communication can postpone the age of initial alcohol consumption.
“It’s mainly written to help parents understand the adolescent brain and understand why they would want to protect their children from alcohol until that brain is developed,” said Donita Robinson, assistant professor at the UNC Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies.
According to the report, evidence from human and animal studies demonstrates that adolescents’ brains and bodies process alcohol differently than adults’. When teenagers consume alcohol, they are less sedated by the same amount and are more likely to binge drink. Alcohol can also negatively impact learning, sleep and stress levels.
Less is known about the long-term effects of binge drinking on the adolescent brain, noted Dr. Wilkie Wilson, research professor of prevention science at Duke’s Social Science Research Institute. The report points out that particular regions of the brain, such as the hippocampus, which is crucial for memory, are vulnerable to long-term consequences. In addition, binge drinking causes inflammation in the brain, which may be associated with depression later in life, and early alcohol use may be related to alcohol-dependence in adulthood, whether due to genetics or the environment.
The researchers emphasized in the report that binge-level drinking—rather than small amounts of drinking— is what can lead to serious consequences in the long run.
“You’ll often hear people and sometimes parents ask, why can’t the drinking age be lowered?” Robinson said. “That’s one of the reasons we do the research we do—to try to find out if are there consequences to underage drinking specific for adolescents. From a scientific point of view there’s a good reason to not drink during adolescence. So I think you need that information out there, to help adolescents and parents.”
The task force aims to promote awareness about this information among parents and the general public in North Carolina’s efforts to curb underage drinking and substance abuse. The researchers also noted the need for a broader education about alcohol’s effects on the brain.
“From my interactions with the public, it’s always a surprise when I talk about the unique effects of alcohol,” Wilson said. “Parents and kids have no idea about this—they don’t think about the brain, and they don’t even know how alcohol kills.”
Dr. Cindy Kuhn, professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke, explained that the task force came to the group of Duke and UNC researchers to “identify the messages that we as scientists believe the public should know about.”
“Parents need to understand that their kids’ brains are different from their own brains,” Kuhn said. “Ideally, parents would convey at a very early age that there are a lot of lifestyle things their kids can do to optimize how their brains function, like getting sleep, exercise and not drinking until you pass out. High levels of drinking are dangerous to their brains and to their health—because of unwanted things that happen when they’re intoxicated.”
Although the report focuses on adolescent brains, the researchers noted that human brains continue developing into the mid-20s, meaning alcohol—and other things, including a lack of sleep—can affect brain development of college students.
“I think students need to take responsibility for their health including that of their brain,” Kuhn said. “There’s a real problem at Duke, not just with alcohol but with students managing their lives in a way that their brains aren’t functioning well. They don’t get enough sleep and they’re cognitively impaired.”
Wilson added that although the brain’s “wiring” settles down around age 22, people who begin drinking earlier in their lives tend to be more vulnerable to long term consequences.
Kuhn also said that universities like Duke need to do a better job of encouraging parents to have conversations with their kids before they come to college, but that universities are “incrementally going in the right direction” in terms of educating students on alcohol consumption risks.
“I don’t think they’re putting their lives at risk if they drink alcohol in general,” Kuhn said. “I’m much more worried about high levels of drinking, and their survival, than managing the legalities of do 18 year olds drink at all.”
The report was written by Kuhn, Wilson, Robinson and Dr. Fulton Crews, director of the UNC Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies.