There are many negative consequences associated with drinking alcohol at a young age. Teens can suffer serious and immediate consequences after drinking alcohol, such as injury, engaging in dangerous sexual behaviors that can result in unplanned pregnancy or contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Or, they may choose to ride with a driver who is under the influence.
There are long-term effects, as well. Teens who drink are increasing their risk of developing heart disease or various types of cancer later in life. Because they begin drinking at a young age, teens expose their bodies to these risks for a longer period of time than a person who begins drinking in adulthood.
One major consequence of drinking is that it affects many other behaviors. Individuals who drink alcohol often experience a problem with executive functioning in the brain. Such brain functions as working memory are impacted by the consumption of alcohol.
The research about how alcohol affects executive function is often limited by the methods used to gather data. Often, researchers gather information about alcohol’s effects by asking participants to recount their experiences with alcohol consumption. This method carries with it all the potential problems inherent in data that relies on self-report, such as participants concerned about self-preservation or who remember events incorrectly.
Alcohol-Related Teen Behavior
Another method of examining alcohol-related behaviors is achieved through setting up an environment that mimics a real-life situation. Participants may be evaluated while they sip alcohol at an imitation bar or in a mock social situation. However, researchers cannot be certain that their imitation is close enough to the real thing.
A recent study by researchers at Rutgers University avoids the potential pitfalls of these types of studies by examining the impact of alcohol on executive functioning among students consuming alcohol in real situations. The study is unique in its consideration of the acute effects of alcohol on drinkers under the age of 21.
Previous studies have documented the effects of alcohol functioning, but the studies were focused on adults. The researchers wanted to measure the acute and chronic effects of alcohol on brain functioning in teens. These functions included such aspects as working memory and mental flexibility.
The researchers used field recruitment methods to gather data on underage drinkers, measuring intoxication levels through breath alcohol content. They also looked at chronic alcohol use by measuring the number of years the teen had been drinking.
The researchers used a “trail making test” to measure visuomotor performance and mental flexibility among 91 participants between the ages of 18 and 20.
The researchers found that the breath alcohol measurements were a predictor for performance on the trail making test. Those who had a higher level of intoxication performed more poorly on the task.
In addition, the researchers found that the current measurement of breath alcohol content and the measurement for chronic alcohol use predicted lower scores on the trail making test, but each predicted lower scores for different types of trails.
The research suggests that chronic alcohol consumption has a serious impact on the executive functioning processes of the brain among underage drinkers.
The information provided by the study highlights the potential that teens have for making significant mistakes while engaging in risky behavior after drinking. Teens may make poor decisions due to a low level of mental flexibility and visuomotor impairment.
By measuring the ability of teens to complete the trail making test in a field setting, the researchers were able to accurately measure how executive functioning works in a real-life setting for teens. The findings clearly indicate the danger involved for teens when they drink and then are faced with a risk-taking situation. The executive functioning required to skillfully navigate a risky challenge may not be present once alcohol has been consumed.