Study: Teen Drinking Can Have Lifelong Effects

Teens who binge drink have a lot more to worry about than bad hangovers. A new study shows that heavy teen drinking can cause brain damage that can affect thinking and memory skills. Neuroscientist Susan Tapert explains the findings, published in the January issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

It will come as no surprise to parents that a lot of teenagers drink and too often binge drink - four or five drinks at a time or more maybe as often as a couple of times a weekend. It will also come as no surprise that teenagers think they're immortal and don't worry about the effects of all that alcohol beyond the hangover the morning after. Now we know a little bit more. Last month, the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors published a new study that looked at the effects of binge drinking on the brains of kids.

We want to hear from the teenagers in our audience: How much drinking goes on, what effects do you see in yourself or on your friends? And as you hear more about this particular study, does research make you think twice? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Susan Tapert is a neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego, one of the authors of this study. She joins us from the studios of member station KPBS in San Diego. Nice to have you on the program today.

Dr. SUSAN TAPERT: (Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego) Hi. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And what does the study show? Does binge drinking cause brain damage?

Dr. TAPERT: Well, this is some early evidence pointing in that direction. Previously we've done some studies comparing groups of kids who binge drink as compared to kids who don't binge drink, and we've seen some differences. The study was really helpful because we actually characterized the kids before any of them had started drinking. And then we followed them overtime, some of them started to binge drink, others did not. And we found that those who had started to binge drink began to go downhill relative to the kids who remained nondrinkers.

CONAN: So you had a baseline of them earlier in their teenage years and following through the point where they started drinking or not.

Dr. TAPERT: Exactly right.

CONAN: And how did you do this?

Dr. TAPERT: Well, we recruited kids from just regular schools here in the San Diego metropolitan area, and we did some brain imaging and tests of thinking and memory with kids when they were, kind of, 12 to 14 years of age. And because we had great participation from our local schools and the families who were involved, we were able to continue to follow these kids, really, every three months to at least ask them brief questions about what their substance use had been like for the past - since we had previously talked to them.

CONAN: And I assume that was all private. You didnt tell the parents what they said.

Dr. TAPERT: That's exactly right. It's private information.

CONAN: And it was interesting to me that you were using brain scans of various types?

Dr. TAPERT: That's right. So in addition to looking at how these kids perform on different kinds of tests of thinking and memory abilities, we do several kinds of brain imaging techniques with them too, using MRI, which is very safe, but this helped us to look at a couple of things; the size and shape of different brain parts, the way that your brain uses oxygen as it's performing different tasks, and also the quality of white matter - which is a key part of our brain for the rapid relay of information.

CONAN: And as I gather the effect that you noticed was different in boys and girls?

Dr. TAPERT: That's right. We were kind of surprised to see the effects play out a little bit differently for girls as compared to boys.

CONAN: In what ways?

Dr. TAPERT: Well, for girls, we saw that relative to girls who remained pretty much nondrinkers, those girls who started to drink a little bit more heavily in their teenage years, went downhill on tasks of what we would call spatial functioning - so your ability to kind of like copy a complicated drawing, to solve a puzzle. So that is an area that sometimes is not always a relative strength for girls

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. TAPERT: and a kind of was particularly vulnerable to this kind of effect from binge drinking.

CONAN: And with boys?

Dr. TAPERT: For boys, we tended to see that those guys who had started to get involved with some heavy drinking episodes in adolescents began to perform worse on attentional tasks. So it's kind of boring tasks where you have to really focus and kind of work quickly and something that's not all that exciting, which sometimes happens in real life.

CONAN: Oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. TAPERT: And the boys who had started to binge drink could not perform as well on those tasks as the boys who had remained pretty much nondrinkers.

CONAN: And when you say, as well or went downhill, how far downhill? How much effect?

Dr. TAPERT: Well, about eight to 10 percent worse. So, again, it's not like a whopping you-will-never-be-able-to-pay-attention-again kind of an effect. But it's kind of like if you think about in school, if you're going to be getting A's, well, maybe that would knock you down to be getting B's, or...

CONAN: Well, thats a way quantify. Yeah, sure. Ten percent loss, yeah.

Dr. TAPERT: And lot of kids at this particular point in life are thinking about SAT tests and performing kind of to their best, which has pretty big implications for where youre going to go to college and what kind of decisions you make - going to make about your future. So it is not a huge effect, but something that we think is important.

CONAN: Is it permanent?

Dr. TAPERT: That's a great question, and we really don't know for sure. My colleague Sandra Brown here at University of California, San Diego is doing a study following binge drinkers over a period of six weeks when they've been asked to stop drinking. And they're monitored, so they've been stopping drinking. And well hopefully be able to answer that question in another year or so.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We particularly want to hear from teenagers. What are kind of drinking goes on in your crowd, and do you notice any effect that it has on yourself or your friends? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Parents also may want to call and see where they can get a copy of this so they can shake the report in their teenagers face and say, see? That's the reason you shouldnt do that. Anyway, let's see if we can started with Riley, Riley with us from St. Louis.

RILEY (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm all right. How are you, Riley?

RILEY: I'm doing just fine.

CONAN: And how much drinking goes on with your crowd?

RILEY: I mean, I just graduated from high school a year, two years ago.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

RILEY: And I would say that within my crowd in high school, you know, we didn't do a whole lot of drinking. I mean, it was more like a social event than anything else. But I would say that the majority of, like, the binge drinking that I would do now is, like, in my college years.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. So it accelerated more after high school.

RILEY: Yeah. Correct, correct. Just more or less during, you know, college parties, stuff like that.

CONAN: And would this research suggest to you that maybe this is not the greatest idea?

RILEY: Well, I mean, it's pretty common sense that, you know, binging on anything early isn't the best idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Nevertheless...

Dr. TAPERT: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...is it going to change your behavior, do you think?

RILEY: You know, as time progresses, I feel that, you know, people grow. And just from my own personal experience, I would say that, you know, I mean, it would - it's going to slow down over just a progressive amount of time.

CONAN: Well, that's - I guess that's sensible. But, anyway, is there a lot of binge drinking in college?

RILEY: Yes, there is. Well, my boss says there's a time and place for everything, and that time and place is college.

CONAN: I see.

RILEY: So I would just, you know, kind of go on that assumption.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks, Riley, very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

RILEY: All right. Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: And Susan Tapert, does he sound like some of the kids that you've been talking to?

Dr. TAPERT: Absolutely. Riley sure does. It's quite common that drinking can pick up when kids start to enter college. They're away from parent environment, and there's more availability of alcohol, often, depending on campus policies.

But the brain is still developing into those early college years. And when you're 18, 19, you still have a lot of maturation that's occurring in your brain. And some of the evidence that's coming out looks like the heavy doses of alcohol does not help that process at all.

CONAN: When you - you're a psychiatrist, and so you do some of these interviews, I assume. And when you talk to these kids, do you ask them if they think this is going to have any effect on their brain?

Dr. TAPERT: We do. We also give lectures on our findings to local high schools, and it's so fun to ask kids their ideas about this - local colleges, as well. And it is very hard for kids to change patterns, but when we are able to get somebody to kind of take a step back and kind of think about what they might be doing, show pictures of the brain and how it's affecting it, I just hope it gets folks to give their weekend plans a second thought.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Scott in Overland Park, Kansas: I'm currently 18, and I'm used to drinking fairly heavily, roughly two to four times per week. I have a 4.0 GPA, but I certainly noticed it's become more difficult to absorb and relay information during the school day and when working on out-of-school work. It's especially noticeable in the amount of time I have to spend trying to absorb the material.

We think of those teenage years, high school and early college years - that's when you're supposed to be absorbing like a sponge.

Dr. TAPERT: That's right. We're really expecting our kids to learn a lot of information at this point in time. And we're learning that heavy exposure to alcohol might adversely affect a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is very critical to our ability to learn new information and to deeply encode it so that we can remember that information accurately later on. So, certainly, my advice to him would be to really cut back on the drinking. Try -you know, if you're going to a party, to find some kids who arent drinking quite as much, hang out with them. Intersperse any drink of alcohol with a nonalcoholic drink so that you can be sipping on something, but it's not got so much alcohol in it.

CONAN: Let's get another call in. This is Jordan, Jordan with us from Farmington in Michigan.

JORDAN (Caller): Yes. Hi. I just wanted to make a comment about how a lot of times, you know, kids binge drink a lot, and I just graduated from college myself. And in college, it's considered socially acceptable to get really drunk, get blackout drunk every night. And think that's a real problem and a misconception, that I don't think there is any really good time to get drunk everyday.

CONAN: Well, as our caller before was saying, there's a time for everything, and the time for this in college.

JORDAN: You know, I don't think that's true. You're supposed to be, you know, preparing for your future and a career in the college - in college. And I just - I think - I don't know how to go about it, but I think there needs to be a change in the attitude...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

JORDAN: ...that it's not okay to get that drunk every day.

CONAN: And were you seeing kids - did you yourself get falling-down drunk every day?

JORDAN: In high school, I partied my share in college. I ended up backing down, but I saw a general increase in the amount of partying kids did in college.

CONAN: And did anybody seem to worry about the effects?

JORDAN: No. Not really.

CONAN: All right, Jordan. Thanks very much for the call.

JORDAN: Great.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

JORDAN: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Susan Tapert, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, professor of psychiatry, also one of the authors of the study published in the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors on the effects of binge drinking on the teenage brain.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Colin, Colin with us from Kalamazoo.

COLIN (Caller): Hi, there. First-time caller. I'd like to say thanks for having me on your show.

CONAN: Thanks for calling.

COLIN: I just wanted to mention, I noticed the other caller said college is the time and place for everything. I think that's a major misconception, a kind of an exceptional excuse for teenagers to take in college to drink too much. And -I mean, I'm now 22. I'm past the age of underage drinking and...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

COLIN: ...I've noticed that my predispositions to drink a lot of gone down much more since being 21 and over the legal age to drink. And I think it's interesting to note, like my younger friends, I can notice them like, well, there's an opportunity to drink. Let's get drunk if possible, as opposed to, you know, let's have a few drinks and, you know, socialize. It's more of like a...

CONAN: Oh, the taboo. The...

COLIN: Right.

CONAN: ...forbidden fruit.

COLIN: Exactly. The forbidden fruit aspect.

CONAN: Yeah. Susan Tapert, does that play a role in the kids you talked to?

Dr. TAPERT: It seems to a bit, in terms of kind of having your drinking setting and the particular drinks that you select be a little bit different for the underage crowd, for whom alcohol is illegal, where we sometimes see kids really going at it with bottles of high-proof, hard liquor...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. TAPERT: ...which is pretty harmful, for sure.

CONAN: And Colin, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

COLIN: Mm-hmm. Yup.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Caitlin, Caitlin with us from Salt Lake City.

CAITLIN (Caller): Hi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Hi, Caitlin. Go ahead, please.

CAITLIN: Yeah. I just wanted to say, I noticed - especially when you said spatially, girls are much more affected. I noticed that in my art, that it became a lot harder to visualize things in my head after I began drinking. And especially in high school, where you hate alcohols so much, like the taste of it, that you just try to drink it as quickly as possible so you can just get to the fun part. And then that can lead to really bad mistakes.

And, yeah, I just - I've really noticed I couldn't just close my eyes and visualize everything. Everything became much fuzzier, and my reaction times were slower, and things just got a little worse in my brain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And so did you cut back?

CAITLIN: And what?

CONAN: Did you cut back?

CAITLIN: I did. I actually did after I graduated from high school and didn't drink nearly as much. And then I stopped smoking, as well. And that helped a lot. And spatially, I can visualize things more and my writing is coming back, everything - I'm remembering things. I'm comprehending things. It's much better.

Dr. TAPERT: Oh, that's great.

CAITLIN: And I feel better, too.

CONAN: That's good to hear. Smoking - smoking pot is what you're referring to?

CAITLIN: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah. Okay.

CAITLIN: So...

CONAN: Just to be clear.

CAITLIN: ...I hope my parents aren't listening right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CAITLIN: But - so it definitely - it did make a difference in high school. It definitely affected my grades when I started drinking.

CONAN: Hmm.

Dr. TAPERT: Glad to hear you've been able to cut back.

CONAN: And glad to hear that the abilities have returned, too.

CAITLIN: Yeah, a little bit. Slowly, but surely.

CONAN: Slowly, but surely. All right, Caitlin. Thank...

CAITLIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And I guess, is that your next area of study? Do you continue to follow these same kids?

Dr. TAPERT: We do. We're continuing to follow these same kids. We have a few other studies, as well. We're following kids over time. It does look probable, if we examine what have - has been found in adults and in nonhuman, animal models, that there is a capacity for a recovering functions that we had seen go downhill. So, for folks like Caitlin and others, staying abstinent is a really good idea. And another thing is to continue to have your brain active. So to continue to try to challenge yourself mentally is likely to facilitate that recovery process.

CONAN: Let's see if we can squeeze one more caller in. Michael's with us from Birmingham, in Alabama.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, there. How are you doing today?

CONAN: I'm doing well. Thanks.

MICHAEL: Awesome. I went to private school. So, I mean, I never really had the experience of going to public school and how that might be different. But I always noticed that a lot of parents, even my own parents, had this sort of misconception that private school was such a safer environment and nothing bad went on in private school. But having been there, a lot of the people I went to grade school with, as soon as we got in high school almost immediately started drinking, drugs. And in private school, it seemed almost like it was a lot more readily available. I know...

CONAN: Interesting. Let me ask Susan Tapert. Did you - in terms of diversity, did you have, you know, wealthier kids and kids from poor neighborhoods?

Dr. TAPERT: We have. In our study, actually, it's primarily wealthy kids who are in this particular study. So nobody's brains are invulnerable together to the deleterious effects of alcohol and other drugs. And we certainly hear a lot of kids say - who go to some very, you know, generally well-off private schools - that there is pretty high availability of alcohol and other drugs there, as well.

CONAN: Well, Michael, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: And Susan Tapert, thanks for your time today.

Dr. TAPERT: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: Susan Tapert joined us from the studios of member station KPBS in San Diego. Again, she's a neuroscientist of the University of San Diego of -University of California, San Diego whose study was published in the January 2010 issue of the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors - additive, addictive behaviors, I think.

Anyway, tomorrow, what's next for No Child Left Behind, plus Barry Strauss' historical thriller, "The Spartacus War." Join us then.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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