A new study using rats suggests that adolescents who drink alcohol may have trouble with decision-making in adulthood. Researchers from the University of Washington found that drinking alcohol during adolescence can change the perception of risk but doesn’t affect how rewards are valued.
The researchers studies rats that were given free access to alcohol when they were adolescents. They monitored changes in dopamine (a neurotransmitter that is associated with the brain’s reward system) when the rats were offered rewards alone and in response to cues that predicted risky or certain outcomes.
Study author Jeremy J. Clark, an acting assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, said that dopamine plays a key role in the way we process and evaluate rewards, and is the main target in the brain for nearly all drugs of abuse.
The study found that rats that consumed alcohol in adolescence had an increased dopamine response to risky cues, but this did not affect their responses to rewards. Clark said this suggests that alcohol corrupts the ability to make good decision by changing the perception of risk. It doesn’t seem to be about the reward, he added.
The findings could help develop improved treatments for alcohol addiction and those with a history of substance abuse.
Source: HealthDay, Rat Study Sheds Light on How Alcohol Affects Young Brain, March 17, 2011