Alcohol abuse may have long-term effects on the development of adolescent brains, an issue discussed in the Partners in Behavioral Health Sciences (PIBHS) course for teachers June 22 at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS).
“The brains of children, adolescents and college-age youths are particularly susceptible to alcohol-related problems,” said David Davies, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Developmental Sciences in the UAMS College of Medicine. Davies was a presenter in the one-day PIBHS workshop, “Kids and Alcohol: New Approaches and Treatment.”
Davies said recent research shows that the brain continues to develop until people reach their early twenties. As the brain grows and matures, its nerve cells are still forming new connections and increasing in complexity. Due to their active growth, he added, these brain cells seem to be especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of alcohol, and if damaged, could lead to life-long impairment.
To make matters worse, Davies said, the ability of young people to assess risks and make sound decisions is incomplete while their brains are still developing. They are more susceptible to peer pressure and more likely to explore risky behaviors, such as drug abuse or binge drinking.
Davies’ personal research interest involves the interaction between alcohol and traumatic brain injury. He said it is well established that alcohol intoxication increases the risk for accidents, falls and violence that can lead to head injury.
“I think parents, teachers and legislators need to understand that abused substances, such as alcohol, use the brain’s normal reward mechanisms to elicit repeated drug use and addiction,” said Davies. “Substance and alcohol abuse have a biological basis. It is more useful to view substance abuse as a disease process rather than solely as a moral weakness.”
The UAMS Center for Addiction Research was recently developed by the Colleges of Medicine and Public Health to further the understanding of the addiction process and find ways to break the cycle. Davies said that in the last decade medical treatments for drug abuse have continued to improve and that they are effective.
Partners in Behavioral Health Sciences (PIBHS) is a program in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UAMS College of Medicine. PIBHS focuses on mental health and substance use problems by providing current science-based information to school personnel working with children from kindergarten through high school. Its primary emphasis is on behavioral health issues affecting youth. It is offered through a collaboration of university- and community-based researchers and clinicians, primary and secondary teachers and other school personnel and students.
PIBHS is in its fifth summer of providing free workshops on the UAMS campus to educate the educators. It is funded by a Science Education Partnership Award grant from the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health.