New research shows that youths who first drink during puberty are at greater risk for developing later alcohol problems.
“Most teenagers have their first alcoholic drink during puberty. However, most research on the risks of early-onset alcohol use up to now has not focused on the pubertal stage during which the first alcoholic drink is consumed,” said Miriam Schneider, Ph.D., a researcher at the Central Institute of Mental Health, University of Heidelberg, and one of the authors of the new study.
She noted that a common notion in alcohol research is that the earlier adolescents began to drink, the bigger problems they faced later in life.
“However, a closer look at the statistics revealed a peak risk of alcohol use disorders for those beginning at 12 to 14 years of age, while even earlier beginners seemed to have a slightly lower risk,” she said.
On average, girls begin puberty between the ages of 10 and 11, while boys typically start between the ages 11 of 12. Puberty lasts approximately 5 to 6 years for most teens.
For the study, Schneider and her colleagues determined the age at first drink in 283 young adults — 152 females, 131 males — who were part of a larger epidemiological study.
In addition, the participants’ drinking behavior — such as number of drinking days, amount of alcohol consumed, and hazardous drinking — was assessed at ages 19, 22, and 23 years via interviews and questionnaires.
The researchers also concurrently conducted a rodent study to examine the effects of mid-puberty or adult alcohol exposure on voluntary alcohol consumption in later life by 20 male Wistar rats.
“Both studies revealed that those individuals that initiated alcohol consumption during puberty tended to drink more and also more frequently than those starting after puberty,” said Schneider.
That means that puberty is a “risk window” for having that first drink, said Rainer Spanagel, Ph.D., head of the Institute of Psychopharmacology at the University of Heidelberg.
The study’s results also show a higher Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) score later in life in those individuals who had their first drink in puberty, he said.
“A higher AUDIT score is indicative of a high likelihood of hazardous or harmful alcohol consumption,” he explained. “This information is of great relevance for intervention programs. Even more interesting, neither pre-pubertal nor post-pubertal periods seem to serve as risk-time windows. Therefore, intervention programs should be directed selectively towards young people in puberty.”
Both Schneider and Spanagel noted the influence of a high degree of brain development that occurs during puberty.
“Numerous neurodevelopmental alterations are taking place during puberty, such as maturational processes in cortical and limbic regions, which are characterized by both progressive and regressive changes, such as myelination and synaptic pruning,” said Schneider.
“Typically, an overproduction of axons and synapses can be found during early puberty, followed by rapid pruning during later puberty, indicating that connections and communication between subcortical and cortical regions are in a highly transitional state during this period.”
“Puberty is a phase in which the brain reward system undergoes major functional changes,” added Spanagel. “For example, the endocannabinoid and dopamine systems are at their peak and these major neurobiological changes are reflected on the behavioral level; reward sensitivity is highest during puberty.
“Therefore, during puberty the brain is in a highly vulnerable state for any kind of reward, and drug rewards in particular. This high vulnerability might also affect reward seeking, or in this particular case, alcohol seeking and drinking behavior later in life.”
Said Schneider, “It is exactly during puberty that substances like drugs of abuse — alcohol, cannabis, etc. — may induce the most destructive and also persistent effects on the still developing brain, which may in some cases even result in neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia or addictive disorders.
“Prevention work therefore needs to increase awareness of specific risks and vulnerability related to puberty.”