Brain Maps Highlight Effects Of Alcohol In College Students
March 20, 2013

Brain Maps Help To Understand Cognitive Effects Of Alcohol On College Students

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

Each fall, legions of freshman descend upon the campuses of our nation´s colleges and universities. The first real taste of freedom too many is often at the bottom of a beer bottle. With stories and studies on underage binge drinking spattering the news sites, a new study conducted by several Penn State scientists aimed to zero in on the long-term effects that drinking at this important stage might have on the neurological development of these post-adolescent students.

This first-of-its-kind longitudinal pilot study, researchers have used brain maps to study the neural processes that occur when these students are presented with alcohol-related cues and how they change during a freshman´s first year of college.

In just the 2012-2013 academic year, numerous stories have grabbed the attention of the nation highlighting not only the negative social but also the negative physical effects associated with the dramatic increase in alcohol use that many students experience after setting foot on their higher education campus. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this came from the University of Tennessee and the now infamous ℠butt chugging´ incident that sent one student to the hospital with alcohol poisoning.

Behind the headlines, however, the behavioral changes a student exposed to alcohol undergoes go unreported. These behavioral changes are indicative of significant alterations in how the brain functions. While the immediate effects of alcohol use are known, its effect on the brain´s continuing development from adolescence into early adulthood is not well understood. This important period includes the transition from high school to college.

The research team, headed up by psychology graduate student Adriene Beltz, sought to investigate the changes to the neural processes in the brains of a small group of first-year students as a result of exposure to alcohol.

To conduct their study, researchers recruited 11 incoming students. Each of these participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) along with a data analysis technique known as effective connectivity mapping. The students underwent three individual fMRI and mapping sessions from just before the start of classes and culminating mid-way through their second semester

"We wanted to know if and how brain responses to alcohol cues — pictures of alcoholic beverages in this case — changed across the first year of college, and how these potential changes related to alcohol use," said Beltz. "Moreover, we wanted our analysis approach to take advantage of the richness of fMRI data."

Upon reviewing the analyzed collected data, the team says the study participants revealed signs in their brains´ emotion processing networks of habituation to alcohol-related stimuli. Additionally, they found a significant alteration in the region of the brain responsible for cognitive control.

Previous studies have alluded to the fact that young adults´ cognitive development isn´t fully complete until they are in their mid-20s, specifically in those regions of the brain responsible for decision-making or judgment-related activity. The timing of this development has been likened to a form of cognitive ℠fine tuning,´ the culmination of which is responsible for defining who we are and who we will become.

Still other studies have suggested that binge drinking during this integral period of neural development may negatively affect the brain in ways that could last into adulthood.


This current research by Beltz and colleagues suggests that dramatic changes may occur among the emotion processing and cognitive control regions of the brain as a result of exposure to both alcohol and alcohol-related cues. These changes, they say, might also exert influence over regions within the brain responsible for a young adult´s decision-making and judgment abilities.

As Beltz explained: "The brain is a complex network. We know that connections among different brain regions are important for behavior, and we know that many of these connections are still developing into early adulthood. Thus, alcohol could have far-reaching consequences on a maturing brain, directly influencing some brain regions and indirectly influencing others by disrupting neural connectivity."

The student participants in the study were observed in an fMRI scanner at the Penn State Social, Life, and Engineering Sciences Imaging Center. While in the scanner, the participants were asked to complete a task for the researchers. Their task involved responding as quickly as possible by pressing a button on a grip device to an image of either an alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage when presented with images of both consecutively on a screen. The resultant data allowed the researchers to create an effective connectivity map for each individual as well as for the group as a whole.

After they finalized connectivity maps, the researchers noted brain regions involved in the processing of emotion exhibited a vastly diminished connectivity when the study participants responded to an alcohol cue as opposed to a non-alcohol cue. The timing of the measurements also showed that regions of the brain associated with cognitive control displayed greater connectivity during the first semester for these new students. What this finding suggests is that the student participants needed to heavily recruit brain regions involved in cognitive control in order to overcome the alcohol-associated stimuli when they were instructed to respond to the non-alcohol cues presented to them.

"Connectivity among brain regions implicated in cognitive control spiked from the summer before college to the first semester of college," said Beltz. "This was particularly interesting because the spike coincided with increases in the participants' alcohol use and increases in their exposure to alcohol cues in the college environment. From the first semester to the second semester, levels of alcohol use and cue exposure remained steady, but connectivity among cognitive control brain regions decreased. From this, we concluded that changes in alcohol use and cue exposure — not absolute levels — were reflected by the underlying neural processes."

While the team believes their pilot study paints a clear picture of the effects of alcohol use in these first-year students, they note that there are still a number of unanswered questions in relation to the longer-term effects of alcohol use on neural development, both after the first year of college and, perhaps more importantly, later in the individuals´ lives.

Because the long-term effects on neural development are still unknown, Beltz intends to conduct a follow-up study, tracking a larger number of participants over a greater length of time.

Parents, no doubt, will be concerned about cutting ties with their kids as they send them off to school, in light of this most recent research. However, another recent study from Penn State may help put their minds at ease. In it, researchers found that parents who have a meaningful conversation with their children about alcohol use can positively affect their relationship with alcohol once they arrive on campus.