Rat Study Sheds Light on How Alcohol Affects Young Brain

Drinking at an early age may have long-lasting repercussions for decision-making, risk-taking

THURSDAY, March 17 (HealthDay News) -- Based on the results of a new study conducted with rats, researchers say that kids who drink alcohol may have trouble with decision-making in adulthood.

Alcohol consumption during adolescence can change the perception of risk but does not affect how rewards are valued, the University of Washington researchers found.

The investigators studied decision-making in adult rats that had been given free access to alcohol when they were adolescents. The researchers measured changes in the neurotransmitter dopamine when the rats were offered rewards alone and also in response to cues predicting risky or certain outcomes.

"Dopamine is central to the way we process and evaluate rewards and is the primary target in the brain for virtually all abused drugs," study author Jeremy J. Clark, an acting assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, explained in a university news release.

In the rats, alcohol use during adolescence increased dopamine signaling to risky options but did not affect responses to rewards.

"Alcohol is corrupting the ability to make a good decision by altering the perception of risk. It doesn't appear to be about the reward," Clark said.

The study was published March 14 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study authors noted that the findings might lead to improved treatments for those with a history of substance abuse.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more about underage drinking.

Robert Preidt SOURCE: University of Washington, news release, March 14, 2011

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