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Drinking in Adolescence May Lead to Risky Choices Later
Date:9/21/2009

make good decisions," Bernstein said.

In the experiment, hungry adult rats were given the choice between pressing two levers: the first lever dispensed two sugar pellets each time, while the second lever dispensed four pellets, but not all of the time. Sometimes, nothing came out.

The rats that had been exposed to alcohol were more likely to continue to press the lever with the uncertain outcome, even though over time it resulted in less pellets.

"For some reason, the rats were choosing the risky lever at higher levels than the controls, even when it was costing them," Bernstein said. "They were not performing optimally. They were making risky, poor choices."

A similar effect may be playing out in teenagers who drink to excess, Bernstein said.

Alcohol is known to be toxic during early development. Alcohol consumption by mothers during gestation can cause birth defects and fetal alcohol syndrome.

"The adolescent brain is still developing and growing," Bernstein said. "The same mechanisms that impair brain growth early on may also leave the adolescent brain vulnerable to alcohol effects. Perhaps the brain has a longer period of vulnerability than most people have appreciated."

It's well known that people under the influence of alcohol or drugs take bigger risks, said Dr. Adam Bisaga, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, in New York City.

One of the concerns with teens is that their lack of maturity and experience may contribute to their making very bad, dangerous decisions when they're under the influence, Bisaga said.

"This study goes beyond that even, showing that it's not just when you are getting drunk or high that you make bad decisions, but there could be some long-lasting effects of using alcohol on behavior," Bisaga said.

Teen alcohol use is a serious public health problem, Bernstein said. T
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