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Study: Young brains especially susceptible to alcohol

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January 9, 1997
Web posted at: 11:55 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Andrew Holtz

DURHAM, North Carolina (CNN) -- By custom and by law, society has long told children they should not drink alcohol. But only now are researchers discovering how alcohol may pose a special threat to the brains of youngsters.

Children and adolescents may not be mature enough to drink alcohol, but not just in terms of judgment. According to new research, their brains may be more vulnerable to harm from drinking.

In experiments on the memory centers of rat brains, only young brains reacted strongly to concentrations of alcohol similar to what a person gets from a glass of beer.

"...There was a very distinct difference ... between the reaction of the adolescent brain, which was a very profound reaction, and the reaction of the adult brain, which was essentially no change," says Scott Schwartzwelder of the Durham Veterans Administration Medical Center.

Young brains are 'built to learn'

rat brains

The adult brains may resist alcohol's effects because, in effect, older brains are more set in their ways.

"That's actually a good way to look at it in some ways," says Schwartzwelder. "The young brain is `built to learn.'"

What that means, of course, is that young brains may be quicker to react to alcohol, perhaps raising the risk of long-term effects when youngsters drink. What's more, young drinkers may be hit by a double-whammy.

Other studies at the Durham VA Medical Center and Duke University show that while tipsy adult rats get sleepy, young rats stay alert longer, which could allow young drinkers to extend binges.

Research into the effects of alcohol has a long history. But the study of the special vulnerabilities of young, learning brains is new. And it's entering a new phase.

adult rats

Alcohol and memory

Researchers are also testing alcohol's effects on the memories of people in their 20's to those in their 40's and 60's.

"If the truth is that alcohol is creating more disruption of memory circuits in the young brain," says Schwartzwelder, "then it is important for us to tell that truth."


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