Excessive Drinking While Young Can Alter Brain Function

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Excessive alcohol consumption during adolescence can alter the functioning of the brain in the long-term, psychologists at the University of Liverpool have discovered.

Young people who drank heavily were found to exhibit the same psychological symptoms, such as increased impulsivity, as adults who had been heavy drinkers for many years. These effects may be long-term and difficult to reverse and were evident despite young people being exposed to alcohol for a relatively short period of time.

The research, carried out by Dr Matt Field from the University’s School of Psychology, also showed that young people who drank excessively were highly susceptible to alcohol-related cues - words or pictures depicting alcoholic drinks. Heavy drinkers found the alcohol-related cues particularly difficult to ignore but light and non-drinkers did not.

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Dr Field said: “Adolescence is a very critical stage in brain development and it is possible that heavy drinking during this period will have severe long-term consequences.

“Young people in the UK drink more alcohol and start drinking at a younger age than ever before. Approximately 20 per cent of 13-year-olds consume alcohol each week, with this figure rising to 50 per cent in 15-year-olds.

“Our research found that in 16 and 17-year-olds alcohol consumption was associated with increases in impulsivity and the tendency to get distracted by alcohol-related cues. These results show that cognitive changes can be seen in young people who have not been drinking for long – they are not restricted to adult drinkers with many years of heavy alcohol consumption.”

In a Medical Research Council-funded project, the research group at Liverpool is now investigating the issue of causality, to examine whether heavy alcohol use causes these psychological changes or if some people are vulnerable to alcohol misuse because of pre-existing individual differences in psychological functioning.

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