Alcohol is known to cause many health problems but new research shows it can affect stem cells too. In particular, a recent study suggests alcohol harms stem cells in the developing brains of teenagers.
The study looks at binge-drinking, where a great deal of alcohol is consumed over a short period of time, generally with the intention to become drunk. It is a problem particularly prevalent among teenagers in Britain and a number of other countries such as the United States.
Examining the Brains of Monkeys
Researchers looked at the brains of adolescent monkeys to determine how alcohol affected stem cells. They chose monkeys because human and monkey brains develop in similar ways, making monkeys a more reliable choice for experimentation.
A Year of Alcohol
Four monkeys were given alcoholic drinks flavoured with citrus for a period of nearly one year. They received the drinks for an hour a day over this time period to mimic the effects of binge-drinking. After two months following the end of nearly a year, the animals were dissected to look at how their brains compared to monkeys that hadn’t received any alcohol.
One criticism of the study that should be noted, however, is that the monkeys continued to receive alcohol throughout this period. In reality, a person who is binge-drinking usually does not consume much alcohol throughout the week.
Instead, they would have bouts of consuming a lot of alcohol in a short period of time. In teenagers, this behaviour is common on weekends, where a teenager drinks excessively but then abstains during the week.
Fewer Stem Cells
Researchers found that the monkeys who had been given alcohol over the year had fifty to ninety percent fewer stem cells than the healthy monkeys who did not have any alcohol. The stem cells that were significantly reduced were those in the hippocampus part of the brain.
This area of the brain plays a key role in many important functions such as memory and spatial skills. Essentially, the alcohol ‘kills off’ these crucial stem cells in the brain.
What Does it Mean Over Time?
Long-term, researchers think these results suggest long-term effects from binge drinking in teenagers. It may also be part of the reason why binge-drinking teenagers are more likely to develop alcohol dependence when they grow up into adulthood.
Issues in Underage Drinking
Underage drinking is a huge problem in Britain and around the world. Many government-mandated initiatives have worked to combat binge-drinking in youth but it remains a major public challenge.
There are already many known health consequences as well as an increased risk of alcoholism when a person is an adult. But now, this new study gives us yet another strong reason to put greater effort into reducing the incidence of underage drinking – especially binge-drinking.
Reducing Binge Drinking Around the World
This study may help us to provide young people with enhanced education around how alcohol affects their brains, especially in relation to stem cells. With a growing body of evidence to suggest that alcohol harms stem cells in addition to all the other known damage, it’s more important than ever to find ways to reduce the incidence of binge drinking.