For many college freshmen that first year is more about exploring new-found freedom, including the ability to drink alcohol, than it is about higher education. But according to a recent longitudinal study conducted at Penn State University, plunging into drinking that first year can actually make brain enrichment harder to achieve.
Student Brain Mapping Study
Researchers recruited 11 students just prior to their freshman year to participate in the study. The students were asked to take part in a clinical experiment throughout their first year at the university. The young people were invited to view several images. They were instructed to push a button indicating whether the image pictured alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages (go/no-go tasking).
While the students performed this task researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to view the cognitive or emotional processing taking place in the students’ brains. The technology is useful in mapping brain activity. The process was repeated three separate times during the students’ freshman year (in the summer before classes began, in the first semester and again in the second semester).
Brain Mapping Results
The three brain maps were analyzed for potential changes using a mapping technique called effective connectivity. The cumulative mapping showed evidence of increased cognitive connectivity in the students’ brains from the summer before college began and the first semester testing – a time when new college students tend to experience their highest exposure to alcohol. The emotional connectedness during the first semester testing was lower and slower as the students attempted to identify alcohol versus non-alcohol cues.
Learning How Brain Connectivity Is Impacted By Adolescent Alcohol Use
The study appears to provide a unique picture of changing neural processes as students were increasingly exposed to alcohol and alcohol use. The study could be seen as a springboard to future longitudinal study of how brain connectivity is impacted by adolescent alcohol use.
For parents, the study offers just one more picture of how the decisions of youth can undermine long-term goals that tend to come later on. College is meant to strengthen the mind. Underage drinking appears to weaken it.