Washington: People who have their first drink during puberty have a greater risk of developing alcohol problems later in life, new research has suggested.

According to the research, age at first drink (AFD) is generally considered a powerful predictor of progression to alcohol-related harm.

"Most teenagers have their first alcoholic drink during puberty, however, most research on the risks of early-onset alcohol use, up to now, has not focused on the pubertal stage during which the first alcoholic drink is consumed," said Miriam Schneider, leader of the Research Group Developmental Neuropsychopharmacology at the Central Institute of Mental Health, University of Heidelberg, as well as corresponding author for the study.
Schneider and her colleagues determined pubertal age at first drink in 283 young adults (152 females, 131 males) that were part of a larger epidemiological study.

In addition, the participants' drinking behavior - number of drinking days, amount of alcohol consumed, and hazardous drinking - was assessed at ages 19, 22, and 23 years via interviews and questionnaires.

Furthermore, a rodent study concurrently examined the effects of mid-puberty or adult alcohol exposure on voluntary alcohol consumption in later life by 20 male wistar rats.

"Both studies revealed that those individuals who initiated alcohol consumption during puberty tended to drink more and also more frequently than those starting after puberty," Schneider said.

"Numerous neurodevelopmental alterations are taking place during puberty, such as maturational processes in cortical and limbic regions, which are characterized by both progressive and regressive changes such as myelination and synaptic pruning."

"Typically, an overproduction of axons and synapses can be found during early puberty, followed by rapid pruning during later puberty, indicating that connections and communication between subcortical and cortical regions are in a highly transitional state during this period," she said.

She said that puberty is a very critical developmental period due to ongoing neurodevelopmental processes in the brain and it is exactly during puberty that substances like drugs of abuse - alcohol, cannabis, etc. - may induce the most destructive and also persistent effects on the still developing brain, which may in some cases even result in neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia or addictive disorders. Prevention work therefore needs to increase awareness of specific risks and vulnerability related to puberty.

The results will be published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.


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