Dissenting Ideas on New Teen Brain Science

by John Buell

Several years ago, I wrote a column suggesting that binge drinking in college would increase if society intensified campaigns against all underage drinking. Recent publicity about new scientific evidence on alcohol and teen brains has given me pause. Nonetheless, conversations with scholars on both sides lead me to conclude that disciplining teenagers for moderate alcohol consumption is neither scientifically justified nor productive.

One should be wary about claims for new scientific discoveries. Findings qualify as discoveries only when results are replicated over time and across cultures. Dr. David J. Hanson, a respected expert on the politics and etiology of alcohol abuse, points out that many "new findings" are extrapolations from studies on rats, which often react to drugs in ways different from humans. Others are based on severely alcohol-dependent teens, some as young as 12. Though such studies are cautionary, their applicability to moderate drinking by 16- to 20-year-olds has been contested by many experts.

Earlier attempts to tie cognitive loss to moderate alcohol consumption in adults have been contradicted by later studies that attribute the impairment to educational and cultural deficiencies. In addition, cognition is complex. It is measured in different ways. As with IQ tests, questions reflect cultural predispositions. No small set of findings can be decisive.

In adults, there is also strong evidence that moderate drinking, while slightly increasing the incidence of relatively uncommon hemorrhagic stroke, reduces the risk of more likely ischemic (clot) stroke. Since arterial hardening starts at a very young age, might moderate alcohol consumption convey some long-term cardiovascular benefit? An intriguing but little-reported Australian study suggests cognitive enhancement from moderate alcohol consumption by subjects as young as 20.

Unfortunately, over the years scientists working under grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism have authored studies indicating benefits from moderate consumption among adults only to see some of these studies withheld or under publicized by their political superiors. As in recent cases with marijuana, a researcher today who documented benefits from any stigmatized substance might see the results suppressed and future funding ended.

Even honest brain research confronts an inherent dilemma that makes conclusions problematic. Language, thought and culture - including the culture of "having a drink" - are enabled and affected by the circuitry and neurochemistry of the brain. But by the same token, thought techniques, such as meditation, exert observable effects on the architecture of the brain In addition, once evolution enables linguistic capacity, distinct languages, cultures and beliefs emerge through social interactions. Culture and biochemistry both matter.

An individual's beliefs can have a discernible effect on the brain. Neurons that fire together wire together, in the famous phrase. Some studies indicate that alcohol's ability to induce violence is intensified when subjects are instructed on the violence-enhancing propensities of alcohol. Might research subjects informed that even small amounts of alcohol make one stupid not respond in an analogous manner? I don't know the answer, but stigmatizing all underage drinking makes it more difficult to obtain data and affects the outcome of the research.

When I voice these concerns to some public health advocates, they respond that until the science is in, the default position should be to tell our teens not to drink. My default position is to tell teenagers the truth: some scientists see an indication that moderate alcohol intake may damage the brain, but other scientists dispute these conclusions. Some even believe the direction of current research points toward possible benefits from moderate teen consumption. I emphasize the one strong scientific consensus: excessive consumption is dangerous both short and long term.

Finally, even if negative epidemiological studies on teen drinking become much more solid, it does not follow that if parents or police criminalize, punish, or even stigmatize moderate drinking by 16- to 20-year-olds, social benefits will follow. As long as we allow 18-year-olds to vote, join the army and allow even 16-year-olds to drive, they like older citizens are already making equally serious risk-reward choices on a daily basis and may resent and rebel against our sanctions.

If we withhold alcohol, why not iPods, cell phones or Coca-Cola, which become hard-to-break lifestyle habits that may harm cognitive development? Teens can and do learn to live with ambiguity. When parents impose absolute restrictions that many of them did not follow and base these norms on controversial or politically motivated science, destructive consequences follow. Respect for law, parents, and public health authorities suffers.

We should discuss all risks with teens. I tell teens and adults - to little avail - that for the vast majority of them, cutting their driving in half would convey far more obvious health benefits to us all than cutting their drinking in half. Our government would do better focusing on our dangerous transportation system and on the inadequate educational and economic opportunities that often lead modest pleasures to become destructive addictions.


Originally published in the Bangor Daily News , June 13, 2006. Posted by permission of the author, John Buell (jbuell@acadia.net), who is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News. This is the first of four columns on underage drinking. He invites comments and criticisms and would be pleased to provide an annotated bibliography for interested readers.

The other columns are

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