Drinking escalates dramatically during adolescence, and alcohol use disorder (AUD) typically emerges prior to the legal drinking age. Despite the critical importance of the adolescent years for the development of AUD, subjective responses to alcohol’s effects, which are chief risk factors in contemporary theories of addiction, are rarely directly studied in human adolescents due to restrictions on administration of alcohol to underage drinkers. Adolescents are physically, cognitively, socially, and emotionally different than adults in ways that may partially explain why alcohol misuse typically develops during this period.
The purpose of this study, led by Dr. Hayley Treloar, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, was to leverage data collected in a naturalistic, bar-area setting to test age-related hypotheses regarding alcohol’s effects in a sample spanning adolescence through early adulthood. The researchers recruited 1,364 participants, aged 17 to 32 years, from outside of venues where alcohol consumption takes place, all with an estimated blood alcohol content (BAC) greater than zero.
The researchers found that self-reports of stimulatory response to alcohol were age-related, such that younger participants reported increased subjective stimulation at the time of data collection relative to older participants. Age-related differences in stimulatory responses were more pronounced at lower estimated BACs and among younger participants who typically drank more heavily. Stimulatory responses generally diminished among older more than younger participants, although individuals with greater dependence consistently reported greater stimulation from drinking. Age, typical consumption patterns, and dependence/consequences were not related to sedation in this sample.
This study provided some of the first in vivo human evidence for age-related changes in stimulatory responses to alcohol among underage drinkers. Inclusion of legal drinkers allowed for age comparisons over the developmentally critical period of adolescence through young adulthood. While cross-sectional, the results of this field-based study provide support for the theory that addiction liability is developmentally linked and associated, in part, with age-related differences in subjective alcohol responses.
This study was published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence (ahead of print).
For more information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27918951