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ScienceDaily (Nov. 16, 2010) — Alcohol exposure during adolescence alters the body’s ability to respond to stress in adulthood, according to new research in rats presented at Neuroscience 2010, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, held in San Diego. Because problems regulating stress are associated with behavioral and mood disorders, the findings may indicate that binge drinking in adolescence leads to increased risk of anxiety or depression in adulthood.

Binge drinking, defined as more than four or five drinks in a single session, typically begins around age 13 and peaks between ages 18 and 22. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 36 percent of teens aged 18 to 20 reported at least one binge-drinking episode in the previous 30 days.

The researchers, directed by Toni Pak, PhD, at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine, found that rats exposed to a binge pattern of alcohol consumption around the time of puberty had lower circulating levels of the stress hormone corticosterone — akin to the human hormone cortisol — in adulthood. However, in response to the physical stress of alcohol exposure, these same rats showed a greater spike in corticosterone than rats that had not previously been exposed to alcohol.

“Our findings suggest that alcohol exposure during puberty permanently alters the system by which the brain triggers the body to produce stress hormones,” said Pak. “This indicates that exposing young people to alcohol could permanently disrupt connections in the brain that are normally formed during puberty and are necessary to ensure healthy adult brain function,” she said.

Research was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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