Drinking in Adolescence May Lead to Lasting Genetic Changes

teens drinkingWhen you contemplate genetic behavioral tendencies, you might conceive of these behaviors as immutable. After all, the thinking goes, we can’t change our genes—or the way they affect us.

The truth is much more nuanced than this deterministic view might suggest, especially for developing adolescent brains. An animal study published in Neurobiology of Disease argues that binge drinking might change teens’ behavior by slowly changing their genes.

Could Drinking Change Teens’ Behavior?

Researchers often rely on rats to model human biology and behavior, since rats grow and develop quickly and have similar body structures. Research on animals doesn’t always prove applicable to humans, but animal research can offer a starting point for exploration. Researchers in this study relied on 28-day-old rats as models for adolescent drinking.

To evaluate the effects of drinking on teens, researchers gave the rats alcohol two days in a row, followed by two days of abstinence. They repeated this pattern for 13 days in an attempt to mimic teen binge drinking. Thereafter, researchers continued to offer the rats both alcohol and water.

In adulthood, the rats that had been exposed to alcohol continued to consume more alcohol than those that did not binge drink.

Alcohol-Related Genetic Changes

Researchers examined the rats’ brains for clues to their behavior. They found higher levels of a protein called HDAC2. This protein causes DNA to wind more tightly around histones, the proteins that help order and package DNA. Researchers also found that a gene used to form new nerve synapses had a lower rate of expression in the rats that consumed alcohol. This means that the alcohol may have changed not just the rats’ brains, but also their genes. The result was decreased nerve connectivity in the amygdalae of alcohol-drinking rats. The amygdala is thought to play an important role in memory, emotion, and learning.

Epigenetics is the study of how environmental influences within and outside of the body change the behavior of genes. The study’s authors argue that their work points to an epigenetic process through which alcohol can fundamentally alter teens’ brains and behavior.


Adolescent drinking affects adult behavior through long-lasting changes in genes. (2015, April 2). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150402161505.htm

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  • Kristofer

    April 8th, 2015 at 10:25 AM

    Do we know for sure that these are changes at the genetic level and not just that it could cause different behavioral patterns? I mean, this is downright scary especially given how accessible alcohol os for kids of all ages and for how accessible it was to me when I was growing up. Makes you think even more closely about how the things that we put into our bodies will affect us not just in the present moment but apparently for many years down the road, even long after we have engaged in that behavior..

  • frances

    April 9th, 2015 at 10:37 AM

    I am not sure that pieces like this are enough of a deterrent to keep the teens form drinking, but as a mom it sure is incentive for me to watch out over my kids and try to make sure that this is not behavior that they start on early in life. We think if drinking that has only temporary effects on our bodies, but the damage can not only be long term but also fatal in many different instances. People worry so much about legalizing other drugs and what that will do to society- what about the things that are already out there and so available to our kids?

  • Carroll

    April 12th, 2015 at 7:41 AM

    Drinking among young people is a bad idea regardless of what sorts of changes it brings on, genetic or otherwise.

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