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‘The buzz’ gets the biz: BU researcher explores effects of teen drinking on socialization

A team of researchers headed by Elena Varlinskaya, associate research professor of psychology, as the primary investigator, has won a grant from the National Institutes of Health for work that might help explain the danger of teenage social drinking.

Varlinskaya, along with Evgeniy Petrov, research professor of psychology, Linda P. Spear and Norman E. Spear, both distinguished professors of psychology, will receive $1.1 million over five years to research ethanol and social interactions in adolescent rats.

“We believe that in humans alcohol has different effects depending on the situation,” Varlinskaya said. Generally, in social settings, the effects are positive. “That’s one of the reasons why teenagers drink in social situations, to feel more comfortable in a group.”

She noted that adolescence is a unique period in human development when social interactions with peers take on a high significance, when social situations are a prime motivator and there is a high frequency of stressful, anxiety-provoking situations. Varlinskaya said not only do adolescents experience a lot of stress in their everyday lives, their response to stress is greater than in adults.

Typically adolescence is the time when experimentation with alcohol begins and when the risk of heavy drinking is elevated, she said. “Most frequently teens drink in social situations with peers,” she said.

“They truly expect alcohol to make them more sociable and relaxed, and these expectations may help them feel socially at ease.

“Drinking, very often heavy, to control stress, alleviate anxiety and cope with problems is more common in adolescence than later in life. Alcohol is very appealing to teenagers.”

Varlinskaya said that while alcohol’s anti-anxiety effects may help teens’ social interactions, at the same time, adolescents are unaware of the different effects of alcohol. This lack of awareness may allow them to drink more without adverse consequences, she said.

“Having some history of drinking, they also may develop tolerance to certain effects of alcohol. This means that particular desired effects may be achieved only when larger amounts are consumed,” she said.

“We believe that this unique combination of socio-environmental, motivational and neurobehavioral factors puts teenagers at a high risk of becoming heavy drinkers and of developing various problems related to extensive alcohol use,” Varlinskaya said.

Because these theories cannot be tested on humans, researchers must use rats. Adolescent rats are similar to human adolescents because they spend more time in social interactions than the younger and the older animals. “Adolescent humans and rats show comparable behavioral, hormonal, and brain changes, and these similarities allow us to use rats to investigate alcohol effects on social behavior and motivation for social contacts,” Varlinskaya said.

The experiment will test rats in both familiar and unfamiliar environments. Unfamiliar environments will be stressful for the rats and will produce anxiety-related behaviors. The rats will be given controlled doses of alcohol to see whether it makes them less anxious.

Testing in a familiar environment will assess whether the alcohol caused pleasant or unpleasant reactions. Another facet will test whether the rats developed a greater tolerance for alcohol.

“If our initial predictions are confirmed,” Varlinskaya concluded, “our research will provide needed information about the role of social and environmental factors in extensive alcohol use during adolescence.”

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