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Olympics: Science of the Sporting Life
POSTED 26 JANUARY 2006


red, black and white downhill skier in action Athlete: I think I'll drink
In an unguarded moment last December, "bad-boy" U.S. skier Bode Miller reminisced about skiing "wasted" before a national TV audience -- and ignited a furor.

Moralists ran amok: Star athletes are "role models," and they should not speak favorably about performing drunk, they clucked.

But are there medical reasons to worry how young brains respond to alcohol? The Why Files talked to Richard Yoast, who directs the American Medical Association's Office of Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Abuse Prevention. He sent us a recent compilation of research on how alcohol affects young brains and behavior (see "The Neurocognitive Effects of Alcohol..." in the bibliography).

Everybody knows that drinking causes car accidents and violence among young people, just like adults. So why was the review article needed? "There were bits and pieces of the research appearing, but no-one had put it all together," Yoast told us. Concern about youth and young adult drinking had been focused on social effects, violence, and accidents, he added. "I don't think most people, including a lot of people in the medical profession, realized the physiological and health impacts."

Those include:

Young drinkers and former drinkers score lower on many tests of brain function. A 1994 study, for example, compared 38 adolescent alcohol abusers to 69 non-abusers, and found lower scores on IQ, reading and spelling among the heavy drinkers (see "A Neuropsychologic..." in the bibliography).

Alcoholic youths who had not had a drink in weeks had lower scores on memory tests.

Magnetic resonance images (MRIs) made during a memory test compared 10 healthy women to 10 alcohol-dependent women, and found that the brains of alcohol abusers were less active during a test of "spatial working memory" (the kind of memory you use to find your keys, for example). One of the comparison MRIs is shown here.

Image shows less of the brain being used in an alcohol-dependent woman
Young adults with a record of alcohol abuse use a smaller portion of their brains during a memory test. (See "FMRI Measurement..." in the bibliography, or Alcohol policymd.com).

In young lab animals, a dose of alcohol (equal to two beers in a person) changed the activity of neurons in the hippocampus, which is involved in memory and learning. The same dose had little or no effect in adult lab animals, according to a study in the journal Alcohol in 1999 (see "Age and Dose-Dependent..." in the bibliography).

This last item indicates that not only does alcohol harm young brains, but it is more harmful to young brains than to older ones, Yoast says. He thinks this type of finding justifies the rising drinking ages that have been legislated over the past 20 years.

The animal study moves beyond correlation: finding lower intelligence among drinkers shows an association between the two facts, it does not prove that one causes the other.

Even though these youths had not drank in weeks, they still scored lower.  In memory tests, young people who had abused alcohol remembered fewer items on a grocery list. Graph:(See "Neurocognitive Functioning..." in the bibliography, or Alcohol policymd.com.)

A differential response to alcohol also bears on another current concern: binge drinking. This occasional but intense guzzling can cause harm ranging from blackouts to traffic deaths, and it's a particular concern at college campuses. "It tells us why younger people tend not to be able control their drinking," says Yoast. "Their brains are not as fully developed; their bodies respond differently in terms of the urge to get high, so they crave more."

For all these reasons, says Yoast, it matters when a ski star brags about skiing under the influence. "It sends out false information that there is no problem. Look at how well he's doing. Why not just drink?"

Why not compete when you are injured?

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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