For most college students, binge drinking is a familiar concept. During the week, students focus on our studies, but once Friday evening hits, the shots keep coming.
Researchers discovered 25 years ago that a single dose of alcohol affects teens differently than it affects adults, according to Harry Schwartzwelder, professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Recently, Schwartzwelder led a team of researchers to find out exactly how teens’ brains are damaged by repeated exposure to alcohol during this crucial developmental time. His team tested whether a drug called Donepezil, primarily used to treat Alzheimer’s, could give clues as to how alcohol acts on the brains of adolescent male rats.
“Donepezil reversed not just one or two of the negative effects of alcohol, but almost all of them,” Schwartzwelder said.
Intermittent binge drinking attacks a part of the brain called the hippocampus and kills neurons, which damages the ability to learn and memorize.
“At a cellular level, adolescent alcohol exposure is changing the brain long-term, and not for the better,” Schwartzwelder said.
The rats used in the study consumed alcohol intermittently during adolescence, modeling the behavior of typical college students. They showed signs of increased cell death and inhibited neural growth. Subsequently, the rats were given Donepezil in adulthood. The results were unforeseen—not only did the drug spur the growth of new neurons, but it also significantly decreased high neural inflammation.
The new data serves as proof that the adolescent brain is more vulnerable than the adult brain, and more prone to permanent damage caused by alcohol.
Around the world, this research was recognized as a significant advancement. Schwartzwelder said they received lots of enthusiasm from other scientists because their work identifying the effects of alcohol on the teenage brain and the potential for reversal with Donepezil.
“The fact that we can reverse this damage with a drug in common clinical use provides hope for therapeutic treatment if someone does this kind of damage,” he said.
However, the study’s main purpose was to investigate how exactly Donepezil reverses the effects of alcohol and decreases the inflammatory markers in the brain, which provided his team with notable insights into the mechanisms of alcohol within the brain. Donepezil is a powerful drug that is, for a reason, only used for older people experiencing cognitive decline.
“It’s not like taking an aspirin,” Schwartzwelder said.
The next step will be to look at the long-term effects of the same type of intermittent alcohol exposure in adulthood. Schwartzwelder is confident that this research will substantiate the evidence that it is safer for adults to drink, while adolescents are more vulnerable.
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He does not imply that having a drink now and then will destroy everyone’s brain.
“People have been drinking alcohol in their college years for a long time, and we don’t have a society of people with significant cognitive decline,” he explained.
However, he seeks to raise awareness for taking more caution.
“What if it’s changing it by five percent? A five percent decline can make a huge difference,” Schwartzwelder said. “Alcohol is a poison. It damages everything it touches. Some effects, in particular, small changes in brain function, can be unnoticeable in the short-term. Being careful of how much you’re drinking will make you do better in the long-run.”