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Too Young And Too Much June 19, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Alcohol and Illegal Drugs, Brain Power, Human Body, Nutrition and Health, Think About It.
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One drink.  Two drinks.  Three drinks….seven drinks.  Does this sound like you each weekend?  It isn’t news that teens can be binge drinkers.  Even the wicked hangover the next day isn’t necessarily enough to stop teens – or adults – from going wild on booze.  But a new study suggests that binge drinking has some effects on teens that we won’t necessarily see in adults.  To understand what researchers discovered, we have to delve into the brain.  The monkey brain, that is.

Binge drinkers consume lots of alcohol in a short period of time with the aim of getting drunk. Does this sound like you or someone you know?

Lasting Brain Damage

To find out what binge drinking does to the brain, a group of researchers led by Chitra Mandyam of the Scripps Research Institute in California looked at how the drinking affected normal nerve cell development in the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for long-term memory.  They used monkeys, an animal with brain development that is very similar to humans.  Their work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers gave four adolescent monkeys alcoholic drinks for an hour each day over nearly a year.  A couple of months later, the animals were put down so that researchers could compare their brains to monkeys that had not been given alcohol.  So, what did they learn?

The binge drinking monkeys had 50 to 90 percent fewer stem cells in their hippocampus compared to the other monkeys.  This could leave monkeys struggling with memory and spatial skills, plus loads of other important functions in the brain.

You’re Not Alone

Just how common is binge drinking?  In a European study last year, Britain came in as one of the worst offenders.  More than half of teens had been binge drinking in the last month.  For the United States, around 11 million teens drink and approximately 7 million are binge drinkers.  According to MADD, Canadian statistics are very similar.

Getting Support

Binge drinking is harmful at any age and can hurt adults too.  But this study suggests that its effects in teens can be especially dangerous because of teens’ brains being quite vulnerable during these years.  Fortunately, there are ways to get confidential help, whether it’s through a doctor, substance abuse centre or even a counsellor at school.  If you feel like your drinking is a problem or you’re worried about someone you know, talk to a trusted adult.

Blame Your Brain For Temper Tantrums March 9, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Human Body, Psychology and Behavior, Tough Stuff.
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Temper Tantrum

Temper tantrums aren’t just a reaction that young kids exhibit when they get upset or angry. Teens can also go berserk over all sorts of issues. Yet, some teens seem to keep their cool while others fly off the handle at just the slightest aggravation. Now, a study suggests that the connection may lie in a teenager’s brain.

Checking Out Families

Nicholas Allen from the University of Melbourne, Australia investigated 137 children between the ages of 11 and 14. As part of the experiment, he also observed their parents. Allen and his team of researchers used questions – such as curfews – that were expected to trigger arguments. They videotaped these disagreements and found that there were loads of differences between the families. Some families kept calm while others were more aggressive and could barely even speak to one another.

What An Enormous Amygdala You Have

When researchers took scans of the children’s brains, they narrowed in on three specific areas. The first was the amygdala, which is what gets people fired up to react impulsively to situations. The other parts they checked out were pre-frontal regions known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) – areas of the brain that play a role in the more thoughtful types of responses. The results were really interesting!


Researchers found that the boys and girls who reacted more aggressively to the family discussions had bigger amygdalas. As for the temperamental boys, they had smaller ACCs on the left side of the brain, which researchers think explains why they remained aggressive for a longer period of time. On top of that, the boys who had smaller OFCs on the left side were more likely to respond to mopey parents by acting just as moody!

Making Sense Of The Results

Basically, what the results show is that those grumpy, tantrum-prone teens aren’t getting enough control from the pre-frontal parts over the amygdala. So, the impulsive behaviors end up ruling over the thoughtful and more reflective areas of the brain. What’s the end result? You got it – temper tantrums! The results also suggest that the areas of the brain controlling emotions and aggression are different in boys and girls.

My title for this blog entry is actually a bit misleading because it implies that the structural differences in the brain are fully responsible for aggression, when this just isn’t the case. The research gives us helpful clues to one contributing factor in the puzzle of temper tantrums. Learning more about why some teens are calm when others can freak out so easily and intensely can perhaps allow researchers to find better strategies for helping teens handle their aggression. As for my teenage years, I didn’t blame my brain for temper tantrums – I usually just blamed my parents, as most of us teens do!

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