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Preference for Alcohol in Adolescence May Lead to Heavy Drinking

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

DURHAM, N.C. – Scientists at Duke University Medical Center
have shown a connection between early drinking patterns and a
tendency to be a heavy drinker in adulthood, in a study of
adolescent rats.

"Drinking patterns in adolescents may be set after only a
few exposures to alcohol," said Nicole L. Schramm-Sapyta,
research associate in the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer
Biology at Duke University School of Medicine. "Rats that
demonstrated a 'taste' for alcohol after only three nights of
drinking were very likely to be the biggest drinkers after
longer-term exposure."

During the first three nights of the study, the rats were
given only alcohol to consume. After that, for 10 days, they
had a choice of water or alcohol. Their drinking was measured
right after they had traveled through an elevated maze, a way
to raise anxiety levels and measure stress-related hormone
levels. They also were tested for drinking after scientists
observed their preference for new objects and for exploring a
new place.

"We decided to examine stress and novelty seeking because
these are two characteristics we see among people who develop
problem drinking," said Schramm-Sapyta, first author of the
study published in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and
Experimental Research. The study was funded by grants from the
National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The scientists found that the rats that drank the most on
the third day of the study also consumed the most alcohol in
the later days of the study. The rodents sobered up for two
days without any alcohol and again were given a choice. When
the alcohol was returned, those that drank heavily at the
beginning of the experiment returned to their habit.

However, the scientists learned that stress and novelty
seeking were not related to drinking outcomes. "This suggests
that there are other traits that scientists should be looking
for, that are related to the early experiences of drinking,"
said Schramm-Sapyta.

Based on the fact that rats are mammals with a genome
similar to that of humans, Schramm-Sapyta said, "We can
cautiously extrapolate from rodents to humans. The findings
suggest that early 'big drinkers' are the people who should be
targeted for alcoholism-prevention efforts."

"The studies that we have done in rats have not yet been
done in humans to our knowledge," she added. "One reason that
rats are particularly useful in studies like these is that we
can control the opportunity for exposure to alcohol, which we
can't do with human adolescents."

Controlling for environment and opportunities to drink is
impossible and unethical to do in studies with teenagers, she
explained. "We can't take a group of teenagers and
experimentally dictate who drinks and who doesn't, because of
the risk of long-term health consequences."

Future studies for this research team will focus on causes
for those early drinking behaviors -- be it the sedative effect
of alcohol, avoidance of after-effects or different types of
metabolism.

Other contributing authors include Megan A. Kingsley, Kiayia
Propst, and Cynthia Kuhn of the Duke Department of Pharmacology
and Cancer Biology; Amir H. Rezvani and H. Scott Swartzwelder
of the Duke Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences,
and the Durham VA Medical Center (Dr. Swartzwelder).

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