A drug used to prevent mental decline in patients with dementia could reverse the brain damage from teen binge drinking, a new study suggests.
Research has indicated that alcohol exposure can negatively affect cognitive functions including learning and memory in adolescent and young adult brains.
A study led by researchers from Duke University is rooted in similarities between previously-observed neurological effects of adolescent alcohol exposure (AIE) and those associated with types of dementia.
The study found that donepezil, a drug commonly used to reduce confusion and memory loss associated with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, reversed the effects of alcohol exposure in rats.
A drug used to prevent mental decline in patients with dementia could reverse the brain damage from teen binge drinking, a new study suggests
People aged 12 to 20 drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the US despite the legal drinking age of 21, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 90 percent of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinks.
Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks in a two-hour period for a man, or four or more drinks two-hour period for a woman.
There is currently little research showing how and to what extent alcohol affects the adolescent brain.
There is, however, substantial evidence that it does cause changes that could persist into adulthood.
‘Clinical studies are starting to show that adolescents who drink early and consistently across the college years have some deficits in learning and memory,’ Dr Scott Swartzwelder, senior author of the study, said in a Duke news release.
Because creating the effects of adolescent binge drinking in a clinical setting would be unethical, much of the research on the topic comes from testing on rats.
In this particular study, adolescent rats were exposed to alcohol for 16 days at a rate that would compare with drinking more than the legal driving limit three to four nights per week.
The alcohol was shown to significantly reduce neuron spine density in the exposed rats.
Teenage drinking by the numbers
- People aged 12-20 drink 11 percent of the alcohol consumed in the US despite the legal age being 21
- In 2010, there were about 189,000 hospital visits by people under 21 due to alcohol related injuries and conditions
- Excessive drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths in underage drinkers
- A 2015 survey revealed that 10 percent of eighth graders had drank within the past 30 days
Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention
The spine is a key structure of the neuron that helps strengthen the transmission of chemical signals in the brain.
Overall, the change in spine density indicates a change in the way information was being transmitted in the brain.
When the alcohol reduced spine density, the speed and strength of signals in the brain would be reduced as well, impairing cognitive functions like memory.
A four-day treatment of donepezil restored spine density, in effect reversing the damage from the alcohol and increasing speed and strength of the signals.
Swartzwelder said that this study gets researchers one step closer to a complete understanding of the effects of alcohol on the developing brain.
‘Studies in humans of the long-term effects of drinking during adolescence are just beginning to emerge, but the data we do have indicate negative cognitive effects, and this puts us one step closer to one day being able to reverse those,’ he said.
Researchers first drew a link between AIE and dementia because they both involve changes in enzymes used in the production of neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain.
Studies of teen binge drinking have suggested that alcohol exposure reduces neurotransmitter activity in certain areas of the brain.
Donepezil is used to prevent cognitive decline in patients with forms of dementia by regulating a specific enzyme called cholinesterase involved in the production of a certain type of neurotransmitter.
The study also found a second link in the research: a gene called Fmr1.
Mutations in Fmr1 are associated with developmental delays and conditions including autism and Parkinson’s.
In this study the researchers said alcohol appeared to have changed the regulation of the Fmr1 gene in the rats. Additionally, the experiments found a link between activity of the gene and changes in bone density.