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Brain development in teens curbed by alcohol tolerance

According to a study published on Tuesday, the younger brains of teens are capable of withstanding alcohol’s effects on social behavior.//

However, the researchers found that this enhanced alcohol tolerance may make teens indulge in heavy drinking that could result in permanent damage to the under-developed regions of the brain.

They used adolescent rats as substitutes for teen drinkers. The previous studies by these scientists looked at the physical effects of alcohol. Researchers at the Binghamton University in New York and Harvard Medical School conducted the recent study on the effects of alcohol on social interaction among groups of rats in the laboratory at many stages of adolescence and youth.

The study is published in the November issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. "What I find really interesting is that they are also less sensitive than adults to hangover-related effects," said Elena Varlinskaya, a research professor of psychology at Binghamton and lead author of the study.

"The ability of adolescents to rapidly counteract some unpleasant alcohol effects by developing acute tolerance may allow them to have more drinks per occasion," she said. "This binge pattern of drinking, being unsafe in general, might be extremely dangerous for adolescents."

"Because testing the effects of alcohol on teenagers cannot be done for legal and ethical reasons, the researchers used rat models. Adolescent rats are similar to human adolescents because they spend more time in social interactions than the younger and the older animals, " Prof. Varlinskaya said.

"The results of the study could explain why adults often say they can't hold their alcohol as well as they used to, " said Anh Le, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

"The teenage brain is under a lot of stress and can adapt quickly when new substances are introduced to the body. This "plasticity" of the brain decreases with age and the brain becomes fully developed."

However, he cautions that alcohol tolerance in teens can have damaging effects. "Because the brain is still developing, taking [in] more alcohol can lead to a lot of damage, even memory impairment," Dr. Le said. "And we know that 70 to 80 per cent of people who are alcohol-dependent in adult life started off with heavy alcohol consumption in adolescence."

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