High-risk behavior is a term that doctors and public health officials use to describe activities that can cause serious harm in individuals or for society as a whole. Common examples of this type of behavior include having sex without a condom, behaving violently toward self or others, and abusing drugs or alcohol. In a study presented in April 2014 at an annual scientific conference called Experimental Biology, researchers from the University of Washington explored the potential influence of alcohol consumption in adolescence on participation in high-risk behavior in adulthood. These researchers specifically focused on the relationship between teen drinking and adult substance abuse.
How Does Teen Drinking Affect The Growing Brain?
Researchers know that significant alcohol intake during adolescence can alter brain development and produce both short-term and lasting negative consequences. Figures compiled by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicate that U.S. teens drink substantially less often than all adults under the age of 65. However, depending upon the stage of adolescence under consideration (and excluding 13-year-olds), anywhere from 11 percent to 46 percent of teenagers consume alcohol on a monthly basis. In addition, 5.4 percent to 30 percent of teens take part in binge drinking, a form of rapid short-term intake that leads to a legally defined state of drunkenness. Smaller but statistically meaningful numbers of teenagers also participate in heavy drinking, a level of weekly or monthly intake that exceeds the public health guidelines for relatively safe, non-problematic drinking for adults.
Research and public health efforts often focus on the impact of high-risk behavior in adolescence, not adulthood. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains an ongoing, nationwide project called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System specifically to monitor national, state-by-state and local trends in risky behavior among American teenagers. However, young adults and older adults also commonly engage in risky behavior to one extent or another. For example, binge drinking is more frequent among young adults between the ages of 21 and 34 than among any other age group. Young adults between the ages of 21 and 25 also constitute the second most likely age group to use/abuse an illegal or illicit drug or medication. Any number of explanations may account for the high-risk behaviors of younger and older adults, including such things as life stresses, genetic predisposition, diagnosable mental health problems and the continuation of behavioral patterns established in adolescence.
What Is The Link?
In the study presented at Experimental Biology, the University of Washington researchers used laboratory experiments on rats to examine the impact that teen alcohol consumption can have on adult participation in substance abuse and other forms of high-risk behavior. A group of 30-day-old rats (the rough equivalent of 13-year-old humans) were given round-the-clock access to alcohol-laden cubes of Jell-O for 20 days. This 20-day time period mirrors the entire course of human adolescence. After transitioning into adulthood, all of the alcohol-exposed rats were subjected to a series of tests that required them to choose between performing relatively low-risk tasks that produced fairly small rewards and performing relatively high-risk tasks that produced fairly large rewards. The researchers concluded that, even when the rats would have gained a greater overall reward by successfully performing a number of low-risk tasks, they still showed a distinct preference for the higher-risks tasks.
Next, the researchers examined the brains of the alcohol-exposed rats and tried to determine how the preference for high-risk, high-reward behaviors developed. After completing these examinations, they concluded that the rats had undergone significant changes in the normal processing of a specific brain chemical (also found in humans) known to boost activity in the brain’s pleasure center. In addition, they concluded that the rats had undergone secondary brain chemical changes that contributed to poor regulation of the pleasure center’s normal level of activity.
The authors of the study concluded that teen alcohol exposure may contribute to enduring alterations of the chemical responses inside the brain’s pleasure center. In turn, this long-term alteration may lead to lasting deficits in the ability to make situation-appropriate decisions and avoid involvement in substance abuse or other risky behaviors. The study’s authors believe that their work may help answer the question of whether certain adults are born with an inclination for high-risk behavior or develop this tendency as a result of specific influences encountered in everyday life.