New evidence from a team of American researchers indicates that teenagers who periodically engage in binge drinking may experience changes in the expression of their genetic code that increase the likelihood of serious alcohol problems in adulthood. Researchers and public health officials are well aware that genetic risk factors for alcohol problems commonly interact with environmental factors encountered in everyday life. In a study published in March 2015 in the journal Neurobiology of Disease, researchers from two U.S. institutions gauged the potential of binge drinking in adolescence to produce alterations in genetic expression, called epigenetic changes, which increase the odds of developing adult alcohol problems which will require treatment. These researchers concluded that teens who binge drink may unknowingly trigger epigenetic changes that increase their alcohol-related risks in later life.
Genetic Risks for Alcohol Problems
All human beings have a relatively large number of genes that influence their odds of developing serious health problems related to alcohol use. The genes in question often have multiple forms or variations; people carrying certain genetic variations have increased chances of developing alcohol problems, while people carrying other versions of the relevant genes typically have decreased chances of developing such problems. Examples of genetic variations that increase or lower alcohol-related risk include an inherited hypersensitivity to alcohol that substantially increases the likelihood of perceiving drinking as an unpleasant activity, as well as an inherited lack of sensitivity to alcohol that substantially increases the odds that a person will consume alcohol in potentially dangerous amounts in order to feel a mind-altering effect. Some of the human body’s alcohol-related genes have a more or less direct impact on the chances of developing drinking problems at some point in life. However, some genes only produce their impact through complex interactions with other genes. In addition, the real-world influence of any alcohol-related gene may vary considerably according to a person’s life experiences and environmental risk factors for alcohol problems. This means that genetics does not solely determine whether you will develop such problems now or in the future.
Scientists use the term epigenetic change to refer to anything that alters the delicate timing of gene-based growth and development inside the human brain and body. This form of change is possible because environmental influences can significantly alter the pacing of the chemical events that switch certain genes “on” and “off” at appropriate times as human beings pass through childhood and adolescence on their way to adulthood. Depending on a person’s specific circumstances, an epigenetic change can have a small or large impact on future chances of developing certain physical or mental health problems, or of falling into patterns of behavior that increase the chances of experiencing physical or mental harm.
Impact of Teen Binge Drinking
Binge drinking is defined by the rapid intake of enough alcohol to make a person legally drunk in no more than a couple of hours. Current estimates indicate that roughly 90 percent of the total volume of alcohol imbibed by teenagers is consumed during binging episodes. In the study published in Neurobiology of Disease, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center used laboratory experiments on rats to help determine if epigenetic changes associated with alcohol binging in adolescence increase the chances of experiencing alcohol problems in adulthood. The researchers mimicked typical teen binge-drinking behaviors by establishing a 13-day pattern of giving young rats unlimited access to alcohol for two days, then cutting off access for the following two days. After these rats reached adulthood, the researchers looked for signs of problematic drinking behaviors when access to alcohol was provided. In addition, they looked for signs of epigenetic change in a part of the brain, called the amygdala, responsible for regulating strong emotions such as pleasure and fear. The researchers found clear indications of epigenetic change in the brains of the adolescent rats that binged on alcohol; they also found that the observed changes typically lasted into adulthood. The affected rats had greater chances of consuming alcohol in problematic ways during adulthood, as well as greater chances of experiencing anxiety-related issues. These findings led the researchers to conclude that epigenetic changes brought on by binge drinking during adolescence may increase the chances that an adult human being will develop alcohol dependence (i.e., alcoholism). Crucially, the researchers also concluded that it may be possible to develop treatments that counter the damaging epigenetic changes triggered by teen binge drinking.