Alcohol abuse in young adults may affect brain development

By Melva Robertson | Woodruff Health Sciences Center | Dec. 4, 2012

Michael Windle studies the long-term implications of alcohol abuse in adolescents and young adults.

The face of alcoholism has changed drastically. What was once viewed as a middle aged, blue collar, white, male disease now reflects a diverse group of young adults both male and female. Binge drinking in young adults is such an important factor in the development of alcohol abuse and dependency that these alcohol disorders are more prevalent in young adulthood than in middle-age or older adulthood. Although the rate of alcoholism begins to decrease around age 25, the damage from this abuse can be long-term.

Michael Windle, chair of behavioral sciences and health education at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, received a five-year grant of more than $1 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue his 23-year research that examines the transitions in drinking status, indicators and impact of alcohol use and disorders across the lifespan. A major component of this research will reveal the long-term implications of alcohol abuse in young adults.

"Studies show that chronic alcohol abuse generally subsides in young adults around age 25," explains Windle. "But there are adverse social and developmental barriers such as impaired brain development that may be present across the lifespan."

According to Windle, the brain has not fully developed by late adolescence. Alcohol abuse, including binge drinking, can impact the development of specific brain regions associated with critical functions such as memory and decision-making. Heavy and binge drinking are also associated with the three highest rates of adolescent mortality (suicide, homicide and drunk driving) and with sexual assault and STDs, including HIV, in young adulthood.

Windle and his team of researchers will more closely study the implications of patterns of alcohol use and abuse on the next stage of life, adulthood. They will also examine earlier predictors such as the social, genetic and environmental contributors of these alcohol-related behaviors. By studying behaviors and factors at each stage, they are able to proactively identify targets for effective interventions.

"We study different domains across time to see what the consequences are downstream," says Windle. "Waiting until someone has liver disease is too late. If we look at how these behaviors fit into lifelong patterns, we are able to develop specifically-targeted interventions that are more beneficial and yield positive results for health and well-being." 

The NIH award also funds a mentorship program that trains junior researchers to further their career development and pursue related research. Windle currently mentors three faculty who have published in similar areas related to the development and consequences of alcohol abuse. Windle is one of five Emory University faculty, and the only Rollins School of Public Health faculty, to receive such NIH research recognition via this grant award mechanism.