Anyone who has drank alcohol or been around people who are drinking alcohol are familiar with some of the effects it has on behavioral and physical attributes. People lose some of the inhibitions, become flushed in the face, and the more alcohol consumed the more affected you become. Consumption of large quantities of alcohol is portrayed in the media as a normal activity for adults, young adults, and now in many shows teenagers. The excessive use of alcohol as a social stimulant can be seen reflected in many drinking statistics such as these 2011 CDC statistics about high school students, during the past 30 days:
- 9% drank some amount of alcohol.
- 22% binge drank.
- 8% drove after drinking.
- 24% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. 1
Alcohol in the Brain
A little bit about how alcohol (the compound ethanol) works in the brain. The mechanism is fairly complicated, and as in all situations, not everything is known about how ethanol impacts the brain, but currently the hypothesis is a “two wave” system. The first wave occurs when the alcohol interacts with targets in the brain such as NMDA and GABA receptors, inhibiting inhibitory neurons, thus decreasing inhibition, a common affect that is association with alcohol consumption. The second wave occurs after these receptors are activated. It is believed to activate the reward system in the brain, including endocannabinoid, opiid, and monoamine receptors. Researchers believe that the second wave is responsible for the reward and reinforcement of consumption.
Underage drinking leading to addiction
One of the major risk factors that the paper mentioned was the amount and frequency of consumption, i.e. drinking to get drunk, which is a common practice, especially for younger users, high school and college age kids. In the earlier statistics I mentioned that 22% of the high school students surveyed had binged in the past 30 days. In a social environment where image is important and there is a large social pressure to drink, and drink copious amounts, it can be hard to find personal limits and not get into the habit of drinking past those limits frequently. This in turn can lead to problems down the road of not knowing how to drink just one glass of wine, or one beer with dinner, because all you know is drinking for the drunk sensation. With the habit forming components of the second wave that give reward for these behaviors, it is not hard to see how large consumption at younger ages can lead to bad lifetime drinking habits.
Another part of this problem is the stigma that surrounds drinking with the age limit of 21 years. Similar to many things that we are not allowed to do, this age restriction entices many to try alcohol and participate in illegal activity. Being introduced to alcohol by family and in circumstances outside of peer pressure to binge drink could help to slow this problem and show that drinking alcohol can be done in a social capacity without getting drunk. While this is optimistic, and many people have family members who get drunk when they drink, so this may not be the optimal introduction to alcohol, I know that my drinking habits (disclaimer, I am over 21) have been largely affected by the way that my parents treated alcohol while I was growing up. It’s a reminder that kids (young and old) are constantly looking at the behaviors of the adults around them as social cues and are learning, and often emulating those choices.