Springfield, Ohio – With a special interest in behavioral neuroscience, Josephine Wilson, the Paul Luther Keil Endowed Chair of Psychology at Wittenberg University, proposed a study to determine the effects, if any, of alcohol on the brains of young drinkers.
Her research proposal was accepted by the Wallace Kettering Neuroscience Institute, and Wilson received a $77,000 grant to support her research. Upon completion, Wilson's findings were included under a "Breaking News" headline in the Psychiatric Times on Aug. 22, and she was interviewed for Sound Medicine on National Public Radio on Sept. 11.
"I decided to conduct this study after talking to students about how much they drink and after reading about the brain damage seen in older alcoholics," Wilson said. "I wondered if it is possible that young drinkers could also show signs of brain impairment."
Studies using fluorodeoxyglucose–positron emission tomography (FDG-PET) have revealed that local reductions in cerebral glucose metabolism are present in older, chronic alcoholics, compared to age-matched controls.
"The purpose of this study was to determine if impaired brain activity, as indicated by reduced glucose metabolism in specific regions of the brain, can be found in the brains of chronic alcohol abusers under 25 years of age, compared to the brains of age matched controls that do not drink," Wilson said.
Twenty men, aged 21-24, were selected following a screening interview to eliminate anyone with a history of head trauma or who used recreational drugs or drugs prescribed for psychological disorders. The subjects were divided into a "drinker" group of those who consumed at least 25 drinks per week, and an "abstainer" group of those with no history of drinking. Each subject received $200 for participating in the study, and they were all asked to abstain from alcohol for 24 hours prior to the two-day test period.
On the first day, the subjects underwent urine and blood tests to screen for alcohol and drug use, a physical examination by a physician, and neuropsychological testing that included the WAIS-III (Digit Span, Block Design), California Verbal Learning Test, National Adult Reading Test, Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, a fine motor test (Pegs) and the Grip Strength Test. Resting FDG-PET imaging was also conducted with the subjects in repose with their eyes closed for 20 minutes.
On the second day the subjects were again given drug and alcohol screening tests and underwent MRI and FDG-PET scanning, at which time they were administered a Letter-Number Sequencing Test. MRI and PET images were co-registered, and differences in brain activity between the drinkers and abstainers during rest and activation were tested with t tests using Statistical Parametric Mapping, which refers to the construction and assessment of spatially extended statistical processes used to test hypotheses about functional imaging data. Differences in neuropsychological measures between drinkers and abstainers were examined with t tests.
"No statistically significant differences between drinkers and abstainers were found for any of the neuropsychological measures obtained," Wilson said. "However, there were several changes seen in the brain imaging. The areas that differed between the brains of the drinkers and non-drinkers appeared to reflect similar changes as those reported by other researchers in older drinkers.
"The brains of young (and old) drinkers showed reduced blood flow and glucose metabolism in the cerebellum at the back of the brain (which controls motor coordination) and in the frontal lobes, in regions associated with 1) reasoning and judgment and 2) creativity and imagination," Wilson said. "PET appears to be a highly sensitive technique for detecting early functional changes in the brain due to alcohol abuse."
Written By: Phyllis Eberts