Not every alcoholic can remember his or her first drink, or first experience with intoxication. But it does seem to be a common memory among recovering alcoholics, no matter how many years, or decades have passed since that first drink. It seems that alcohol makes an immediate impression on a “virgin” brain.
That’s also what a team of researchers from the University of California-San Francisco discovered, in studying how even the first exposure to alcohol can affect a person’s brain.
The researchers exposed mice to alcohol and then studied the synapses (connections) in their brains. The team found that even the first drink produced significant changes in the brain’s biological structure, calling the changes a “learning event.”
“This is basically the first step,” says Dr. Dorit Ron, one of the chief researchers. “You are basically placing a memory trace.”
Dr. Ron says the entire study was based on the idea that “addiction, and not just alcohol addiction, is thought to be a maladaptive form of learning and memory.” In essence, the study showed that first exposure to alcohol primes the brain for further use and lays the foundation for future “learning.”
“Drugs of abuse basically hijack the normal learning and memory processes,” Dr. Ron says. “The behavior becomes habit.”
The NIAAA-funded study did not establish a relationship between initial use and addiction, or even problematic drinking. But the researchers hope is that better understanding of alcohol’s initial effects on the brain could lead to better treatment and prevention efforts. “If we can control that step, we may be able to prevent further escalation,” Dr. Ron says.
More research is needed to determine which other components of the brain are affected by initial alcohol exposure. Dr. Ron says she believes the changes that occur during first exposure could be reversed with prolonged abstinence from alcohol. But she said the more a person drinks, the harder it is to reverse those changes as the brain forms stronger connections to drinking.
Another study also suggests that the earlier a person starts drinking, the stronger those connections may become.
Researchers at Texas A & M University set out to identify which substance people use first in their lives and found the majority of people try alcohol before any other substance. The team also looked at how a person’s age when they start drinking affects substance use later in life. Researchers say the earlier someone starts drinking, the more likely they are to use more than one illicit substance, and they’re also more likely to develop an addiction.
“It’s a very nice predictor for polysubstance use,” says Dr. Adam Barry, the study’s chief author. “The later you delay, the closer you are to 21, the less likely you are to be alcohol dependent or dependent on other substances.”
There is a difference between a first sip and a first binge drinking event, and the researchers acknowledge that. But they say age at first use of any kind is still a good predictor of behavior later in life.
To combat problematic drinking, Dr. Barry says educators need to address all factors of a child’s life, not just the substance itself. In keeping with new guidelines from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Barry and his team recommend beginning substance education as early as third grade.
“Alcohol consumption among youth doesn’t occur in a vacuum,” Dr. Barry says. “It’s really just trying to find evidence-based strategies that prevent drug use and then applying those in an alcohol setting.”