I wonder how the pitch would’ve gone for this one. Boss, I wanna do a project. What? I wanna get rats drunk and teach them to gamble. Cool; here’s some money to buy some Jello and Smirnoff. Lemme know what you find out…
What they found out was pretty interesting — rats who were given alcohol (in the form of 20 days of near-constant gelatin-shot boozing!) during their formative years were far less likely to make sensible choices, especially when there was an element of risk involved. It turned out that the rats that imbibed while young were more likely to play with the lever that paid out in erratic amounts of sugar treats, even after they dried out.
To test the rats’ propensity for risk, the researchers adopted a gambling task used by psychologists to study risk-taking in people. The animals learned that pressing one lever produced small but certain rewards in the form of small sugar pellets and an adjacent lever yielded bigger rewards–more pellets–but paid off less frequently. The researchers rigged the game so that in some testing sessions choosing the certain reward was the best overall strategy, while in other sessions the “risky” lever yielded the greatest overall payoff.
Teetotaling rats figured out the game over the course of a testing session and adjusted their strategy accordingly. Rats in the alcohol group also quickly learned that pressing the levers could lead to food, which Bernstein says argues against a general learning impairment. But 3 months after their last drink, they always preferred the risky lever, even when they payoff was poor, the researchers report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Rats aren’t humans, obviously , but the parallels are still worth noting. Even after the age of 18, the brain is still undergoing its final developments, according to a study out of Dartmouth. It might take until the mid twenties before the brain fully matures. So kids who start drinking earlier, especially 12 or 13 years old, are putting more than their health at risk. In the UK, it was reported that kids as young as eleven were already into it.
If rat brains remain affected months after they quit, what’s happening to the brains of these kids? Even if they aren’t binge drinking (although that’s popular), it’s still not doing their little minds any favours.
From the article again:
“It’s a good step forward,” says Martin Paulus, a psychiatrist who studies addiction and decision-making at the University of California, San Diego, and the Veterans Affairs San Diego Health Care System. Paulus says the findings provide solid evidence that alcohol use in adolescence can cause lasting effects on adult behavior. He notes that the genetic and environmental influences at play are far more complex in people, but he thinks the study will facilitate further investigation of how early alcohol exposure could alter decision-making circuitry in the brain.
One possibility, Bernstein says, is that brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, which plays an important roles in decision-making and is still maturing in human teenagers, are particularly sensitive to the effects of adolescent drinking: “Alcohol for some reason is very toxic to developing nervous systems.”
Stuff to think about.