Rat Studies Indicate Alcohol Affects Long-term Capacity to Learn

Studies of the effects of alcohol on young rats indicate that alcohol can affect the brain and the ability to learn as an adult, even after periods of long abstinence.

Dr. Fulton Crews and Jennifer Obernier at the North Carolina Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies exposed young rats to the equivalent of several years of binge drinking. After remaining sober for several “rat years,” the rats still had measurable damage to certain parts of their brains. Dr. Crews and Obernier had the rats swim to a platform. When the researchers moved the platform, the rats that had been former alcoholics could not locate it, although the control group that had not been exposed to alcohol found it easily no matter how it was moved.

Dr. Crews explains that repeated alcohol binges causes the cingulated cortex to experience neuro-inflammation. This leads to diminished capacity to control alcoholic cravings and to poor decision-making. Heavy drinking in early or middle adolescence also causes damage to the bitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain that uses information to envision outcomes. Such damage is why the rats could not find the new location of the platform.

Repeated alcohol binges not only interfere with brain development in adolescence, but may cause damage in the ability to perform intellectual activities as an adult, psychiatrist Paul Steinberg wrote in the New York Times. Adolescence is a time when the human (and every mammal) brain has an increased capacity to learn, but alcohol can interfere with what should be a time of enhanced capacity for brainwork.

Dr. Steinberg advises people not to start binge drinking until after age 40, not at 16.

“The more we have binged and the younger we have started to binge – the more we experience significant, though often subtle, effects on the brain and cognition,” he wrote.

Teens who are dealing with substance abuse addictions and sobriety can benefit from a boarding school that caters to their needs.