The effects of prolonged alcohol use are hazardous. Prior studies have identified the potential impact of incessant drinking including cirrhosis of the liver and increased risk of various kinds of cancer. A group of researchers aimed to study how prolonged use of alcohol can affect cognitive abilities and neurophysiological functioning apart from structural brain development.
The researchers in their study, titled “Heavy alcohol use in adolescence is associated with altered cortical activity: a combined TMS–EEG study” have suggested that long-term alcohol use by adolescents transforms cortical excitability and functional connectivity in their brains. The study findings were published online in the journal Addiction Biology in December 2016. The alterations were observed in physically and mentally healthy, but alcohol abusing teenagers, though they had not been detected with any substance use disorder.
The research, part of the Adolescents and Alcohol Study, examined the impact of excessive drinking by teenagers on the electrical activity and the excitement of the cortex. The researchers, for evaluation purposes, followed up on 27 teenagers who had been drinking heavily during their entire phase of adolescence. They also looked at 25 adolescents who either had little or no alcohol. These teenagers were in the similar age group, and of same gender and educational backgrounds. All the respondents were in the age group of 13-18 years during the initial phase of the study.
When the participants reached the age group of 23-28 years, the scientists examined their brain activity using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) coupled with concurrent recording of electroencephalogram (EEG). In TMS, the researchers direct magnetic impulses at the head to trigger cortical neuronal cells. These magnetic impulses pass the skull and other tissues, thus, rendering them safe and free of pain for the respondents undergoing TMS.
The cortical response to the TMS pulse was found to be more among those who drink alcohol. The drinkers exhibited more electrical activity in the cortex and increased level of activity that’s linked to the gamma-aminobutyric acid, GABA — neurotransmission system — known to have a major role in mental disorders like anxiety and depression and various neurological disorders.
The scientists observed that drinking alcohol resulted in major changes in both electrical and chemical neurotransmission among the study respondents, though none of them were afflicted with any kind of substance abuse problem. An earlier study within the Adolescents and Alcohol Study had suggested thinning of the cortex in young people with heavy drinking habits. This is alarming as the impact of heavy drinking while the brain is still developing can be hazardous.
The researchers suggest that medical practitioners should adopt new criteria to help diagnose substance use disorders among teenagers and evaluate if the target group must be immediately referred for necessary medical intervention. The harmful effects of alcohol on a developing brain, though does not manifest immediately, exhibit greater damage in later years, if left untreated.
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