Following up on today’s earlier post about alcohol and brain injuries, we bring you a study on alcohol and risk taking behavior. It seems obvious that drinking alcohol would lead to immediate risk taking, but does drinking as a teenager lead to risk taking behavior as an adult? Some researchers have suspected as much, but they haven’t been able to rule out the possibility that risk-prone people simply start drinking at an earlier age. So a research group chose an obvious course of action to test the idea—they got a bunch of rats drunk and let them gamble.
The researchers tested two groups of genetically identical rats, one group that was fed a normal diet and another that boozed it up. To get the rats drunk, the researchers borrowed the tried-and-true approach of frat boys everywhere—they fed them Jell-O shots. The rats went on a 20 day bender and were tested for risky behavior 3 weeks later, when they were adults, using a gambling task. The animals learned that pressing one lever produced small but certain rewards in the form of small sugar pellets and an adjacent lever yielded bigger rewards—more pellets—but paid off less frequently. The researchers rigged the game so that in some testing sessions choosing the certain reward was the best overall strategy, while in other sessions the “risky” lever yielded the greatest overall payoff [ScienceNOW Daily News].
The abstemious rats who had never consumed alcohol learned to game the levers depending on the payout rate to consistently get a consistent reward. However, the rats that essentially got drunk during adolescence were much more likely to push the lever that dispensed an uncertain number of treats—a risky choice [WebMD]. The researchers say that their study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, supports the idea that drinking alcohol at an early age leads to risk taking behavior later in life. They suggest that alcohol could somehow rewires the brain to choose risky behaviors in the future. However, researchers note that people and rats and quite different—even if some readers disagree—so if/how this study applies to humans remains to be seen.
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Image: Ilene Bernstein/University of Washington, Seattle