College Kids: Alcohol Abuse May Be Caused by Stress

alcoholCollege students have long been stereotyped as hard partiers. Films such as Animal House in the 1970s portrayed all college kids as a bunch of hard-drinking, toga-wearing party animals that had little regard for responsibility and even less concern for learning. These extreme stereotypes may or may not have any merit in real life, but Duke University researchers have found some similarities among college youth that may predispose them to excessive alcohol consumption when the environmental factors are right.

With findings published in the journal Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders, Duke scientists identified the following factors in brain processing and behavior that could fuel stress-related drinking habits in young adults:

  • Reduced fear of negative consequences
  • Strong desire to experience reward

Lead researcher Ahmad Hariri tried to explain why these two issues may come together and produce harmful consequences by saying, “Imagine the push and pull of opposing drives when a mouse confronts a hunk of cheese in a trap. Too much drive for the cheese and too little fear of the trap leads to one dead mouse.”

Brain Imaging Technology Used in Study to Understand College Kids’ Drive to Drink

The Duke Neurogenetics Study analyzed 200 college students through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging technology (fMRI), which can watch the brain’s reaction in real time to external stimuli. The study aimed to analyze both the reward and threat circuitry in the brain. In addition, the research team relied on self-reports from subjects of major stressful events in the last calendar year and any alcohol use that was directly related to that stress.

Researchers discovered subjects who admitted to drinking alcohol in reaction to stressful events had increased reactivity in certain regions of the brain including:

  • Amygdala: The region involved in an individual’s perception of threat
  • Ventral striatum: The region involved in an individual’s perception of reward

Researchers Hope to Use Results to Help in Prevention of College Problem Drinking

Duke researchers said that the ultimate goal of this type of research would be for the findings to be used to help create prevention strategies so more young adults may avoid the pitfalls of alcohol abuse while in school. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that the highest rates of excessive alcohol consumption happen among youth in their late teens and early 20s. In fact, studies have shown that roughly 21 percent of young adults meet the criteria for alcohol abuse and/or dependence. Targeting this population for education and prevention could greatly reduce alcoholism rates.

If you are, or someone you love is, binge drinking or abusing alcohol in college, assistance is available. Contact us at Newport Academy and learn more about how you can prevent your teen from suffering due to alcohol abuse and dependence.

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