In Adolescent Rats, Early Alcohol Consumption May Lead to Heavy Drinking
> 5/5/2008 12:33:09 PM

Many alcoholics first began drinking during adolescence, but early exposure to alcohol is not a definite indication of future difficulties, and not all teens who drink develop dependence. In an effort to better understand why some teens who drink go on to abuse alcohol while others do not, researchers from Duke University Medical Center and the University of North Carolina studied patterns of behavior in adolescent rats given alcohol. Their results, which appear in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, indicate that rats who drink most heavily during early alcohol exposure are most likely to abuse alcohol later on.

Research has already indicated that adolescents may be more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol, as individuals who begin drinking in their teens are more likely to become alcohol dependent than those who begin drinking later in life. In their study, the researchers explain that other characteristics may also increase a teen's risk. They focused specifically on novelty seeking and stress reactivity, using mazes and other tests to assess the rats' reactions to anxiety-inducing situations and new environments, while also measuring levels of the stress hormone corticosterone. For three days the rats were given only alcohol so that researchers could obsere drinking behavior. On the next ten consecutive days, the rats were given the choice to drink either water or alcohol. Finally, they examined the rats' chances of relapsing, giving them only water for two days and then once again offering them the choice of water or alcohol.

The results indicated no associations between alcohol consumption and novelty-seeking, stress reactivity, or hormone levels. However, the amount of alcohol the rats drank during the three days in which they were given only alcohol correlated with the amount they drank when given a choice and after a brief period of abstinence. The researchers suggest that individuals who drink excessively during their first experiences with alcohol may develop a pattern of behavior that leads to abuse, and this pattern may become evident very quickly. Rats who drank the most during the first three days were most likely to drink heavily during the next ten days, and were more likely to relapse after abstinence. According to the researchers, personal characteristics like novelty seeking and stress reactivity may still make an individual more likely to abuse alcohol, and they emphasize the need for further investigation of other factors that may heighten the risk of becoming an alcoholic.

As this study illustrates, the amount of alcohol an individual consumes early on may be an important signal of problems to come. Still, the study does not clarify whether heavy drinking directly contributes to an individual's risk or is an indication of other underlying factors, and researchers should continue looking at how this type of behavior during adolescence translates into future problems with addiction. As they navigate adolescence, teens will face a number of difficult situations, and programs specifically targeting those who drink to excess may be beneficial. However, parents should also play an important role in helping their children avoid addiction by explaining the problems that can occur as a result of alcohol abuse and discussing appropriate behavior.

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