adolescence

Adolescent brain vulnerable to binge drinking and tobacco

April, 2011

Binge drinking occurs most often in adolescents, and most smokers also begin at this time. Two new studies suggest that the impact of these activities on their still-developing brains is likely to be long-lasting.

Binge drinking is, unfortunately, most common among adolescents (12-20 years). But this is a time when brains are still developing. Does this make them more vulnerable to the detrimental effects of excessive alcohol?

A study involving adolescent mice has revealed that not only did an alcoholic binge reduce the activity of many neurotransmitter genes, but that gene expression in adulthood was even more seriously reduced. Although this deficit didn’t translate into problems with spatial learning, adult mice that had been exposed to excess alcohol in adolescence were significantly worse on a reversal learning task. Moreover, certain brain regions (the olfactory bulb and basal forebrain) were smaller.

In humans, it is thought that these impairments might translate into greater difficulty in adapting to changed situations, in evaluating consequences and controlling impulses.

Similarly, another recent study involving teenagers (15-21) has found that activity in the prefrontal cortex varied according to how heavily they smoked, with those who smoked most heavily having the least activity.

The 25 smokers and 25 non-smokers were tested on a Stop-Signal Task, which tests a person’s ability to inhibit an action. Despite the differences in activity level, smokers and non-smokers performed similarly on the task, suggesting that other brain areas are in some way compensating for the impaired prefrontal cortex. Nevertheless, reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is still developing in adolescence, does suggest long-term consequences for decision-making and cognitive control.

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Abused, neglected children have lower IQ in teens

January, 2011

A large study has found significantly lower IQ in teenagers who have suffered abuse and/or neglect.

An Australian study of 3796 14-year-olds has found that those who had been reported as having suffered abuse or neglect (7.9%) scored the equivalent of some three IQ points lower than those who had not been maltreated, after accounting for a large range of socioeconomic and other factors. Abuse and neglect were independent factors: those who suffered both (and 74% of those who suffered neglect also suffered abuse) were doubly affected.

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Effects of caffeine vary with quantity and gender

January, 2011

Two recent studies suggest that caffeine is most effective in boosting your energy and alertness in small doses, and more effective for males.

A study involving 80 college students (34 men and 46 women) between the ages of 18 and 40, has found that those given a caffeinated energy drink reported feeling more stimulated and less tired than those given a decaffeinated soda or no drink. However, although reaction times were faster for those consuming caffeine than those given a placebo drink or no drink, reaction times slowed for increasing doses of caffeine, suggesting that smaller amounts of caffeine are more effective.

The three caffeine groups were given caffeine levels of either 1.8 ml/kg, 3.6 ml/kg or 5.4 ml/kg. The computerized "go/no-go" test which tested their reaction times was given half an hour after consuming the drinks.

In another study, 52 children aged 12-17 drank flattened Sprite containing caffeine at four concentrations: 0, 50 mg, 100 mg or 200 mg. Changes in blood pressure and heart rate were then checked every 10 minutes for one hour, at which point they were given a questionnaire and an opportunity to eat all they wanted of certain types of junk food.

Interestingly, there were significant gender differences, with boys drinking high-caffeine Sprite showing greater increases in diastolic blood pressure (the lower number) than boys drinking the low-caffeine Sprite, but girls being unaffected. Boys were also more inclined to report consuming caffeine for energy or “the rush”, than girls were.

Those participants who ingested the most caffeine also ate more high-sugar snack foods in the laboratory, and reported higher protein and fat consumption outside the lab.

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[2047] Howard, M. A., & Marczinski C. A.
(2010).  Acute Effects of a Glucose Energy Drink on Behavioral Control.
Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology. 18(6), 553 - 561.

[2074] Temple, J. L., Dewey A. M., & Briatico L. N.
(2010).  Effects of Acute Caffeine Administration on Adolescents.
Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology. 18(6), 510 - 520.

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Computer-based program may help ADHD symptoms in children

January, 2011

A five-week training program to improve working memory has significantly improved working memory, attention, and organization in many children and adolescents with ADHD.

A working memory training program developed to help children with ADHD has been tested by 52 students, aged 7 to 17. Between a quarter and a third of the children showed significant improvement in inattention, overall number of ADHD symptoms, initiation, planning/organization, and working memory, according to parental ratings. While teacher ratings were positive, they did not quite reach significance. It is worth noting that this improvement was maintained at the four-month follow-up.

The children used the software in their homes, under the supervision of their parents and the researchers. The program includes a set of 25 exercises in a computer-game format that students had to complete within 5 to 6 weeks. For example, in one exercise a robot will speak numbers in a certain order, and the student has to click on the numbers the robot spoke, on the computer screen, in the opposite order. Each session is 30 to 40 minutes long, and the exercises become progressively harder as the students improve.

The software was developed by a Swedish company called Cogmed in conjunction with the Karolinska Institute. Earlier studies in Sweden have been promising, but this is the first study in the United States, and the first to include children on medication (60% of the participants).

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Cognitive effects of heavy alcohol and marijuana use in adolescents

November, 2010

Alcohol and marijuana abuse associated with specific cognitive impairments in adolescents, but more surprisingly family history of substance abuse can also have an effect.

A study involving 48 adolescents, of whom 19 had been diagnosed with substance abuse/dependence, and 14 had a family history of substance abuse but no history of personal use, has found that greater alcohol use was associated with a significant decrease in attention and executive function (which is involved in planning and decision-making), while greater marijuana use was associated with poorer memory. Adolescents in the substance abuse group had lower scores in attention, memory, and processing speed, compared to the other groups, while those with a family history of abuse (but no personal history) had poorer visuospatial ability.

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Sensory integration in autism

October, 2010

A new study provides evidence for the theory that sensory integration is impaired in autism.

Children with autism often focus intently on a single activity or feature of their environment. A study involving 17 autistic children (6-16 years) and 17 controls has compared brain activity as they watched a silent video of their choice while tones and vibrations were presented, separately and simultaneously.

A simple stimulus takes about 20 milliseconds to arrive in the brain. When information from multiple senses registers at the same time, integration takes about 100 to 200 milliseconds in normally developing children. But those with autism took an average of 310 milliseconds to integrate the noise and vibration when they occurred together. The children with autism also showed weaker signal strength, signified by lower amplitude brainwaves.

The findings are consistent with theories that automatic sensory integration is impaired in autism, and may help explain autism’s characteristic sensitivity to excessive sensory stimulation.

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Childhood cancer survivors show sustained benefit from common ADHD medication

October, 2010

Ritalin helps some survivors of childhood cancer with attention problems.

Many survivors of childhood cancer experience cognitive problems as a result of their treatment. The drug methylphenidate (marketed under several names, the best known of which is Ritalin) has previously been shown to help attention problems in such survivors in the short term. Now a new study demonstrates that it can also be of benefit in the long term.

The study tested attention, social skills and behavior in survivors who had been on the drug for a year, comparing them to a similar group of unmedicated survivors. Although the drug did not lead to a significant gain in measured academic skills in math, reading and spelling, many did show improvements to attention that put them back in the normal range.

Nevertheless, the results also emphasize the need for other approaches, given that many did not benefit from the drug, and some may not be good candidates for medical or other reasons. The treatment group included 35 survivors of brain tumors and 33 of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Any who suffered from ADHD before their cancer were excluded from the study.

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Low grades in adolescence linked to dopamine genes

October, 2010

A large American study of middle- and high-school students has found lower academic performance in core subjects was associated with three dopamine gene variants

Analysis of DNA and lifestyle data from a representative group of 2,500 U.S. middle- and high-school students tracked from 1994 to 2008 in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health has revealed that lower academic performance was associated with three dopamine gene variants. Having more of the dopamine gene variants (three rather than one, say) was associated with a significantly lower GPA.

Moreover, each of the dopamine genes (on its own) was linked to specific deficits: there was a marginally significant negative effect on English grades for students with a specific variant in the DAT1 gene, but no apparent effect on math, history or science; a specific variant in the DRD2 gene was correlated with a markedly negative effect on grades in all four subjects; those with the deleterious DRD4 variant had significantly lower grades in English and math, but only marginally lower grades in history and science.

Precisely why these specific genes might impact academic performance isn’t known with any surety, but they have previously been linked to such factors as adolescent delinquency, working memory, intelligence and cognitive abilities, and ADHD, among others.

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New ways of assessing connectivity establish a "brain age" measure of child development

September, 2010

A new way of analyzing brain scans reveals exactly what changes in the brain, in terms of connectivity, as it matures.

Last year I reported on a study involving 210 subjects aged 7 to 31 that found that in contrast to the adult brain, most of the tightest connections in a child's brain are between brain regions that are physically close to each other. As the child grows to adulthood, the brain switches from an organization based on local networks based on physical proximity to long-distance networks based on functionality. Now the same researchers, using five-minute scans from 238 people aged 7 to 30, have looked at nearly 13,000 functional (rather than structural) connections and identified 200 key ones. On the basis of these 200 connections, the brains could be identified as belonging to a child (7-11) or an adult (25-30) with 92% accuracy, and adolescents or adults with 75% accuracy. Moreover, the most important factor in predicting development (accounting for about 68%) was the trimming of the vast number of childhood connections.

Apart from emphasizing the importance of pruning connections in brain development, the main value of this research is in establishing an effective analytic method and baseline measurements for normal development. It is hoped that this will eventually help researchers work out indicators for various developmental disorders.

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Adolescents with type 2 diabetes have diminished cognitive performance and brain abnormalities

September, 2010

Another study adds to growing evidence that diabetes, or poor glycaemic control, has serious implications for brain function.

A small study comparing 18 obese adolescents with type 2 diabetes and equally obese adolescents without diabetes or pre-diabetes has found that those with diabetes had significantly impaired cognitive performance, as well as clear abnormalities in the integrity of their white matter (specifically, reduced white matter volume, especially in the frontal lobe, as well as impaired integrity in both white and grey matter). Similar abnormalities have previously been found in adults with type 2 diabetes, but the subjects were elderly and, after many years of diabetes, generally had significant vascular disease. One study involving middle-aged diabetics found a reduction in the volume of the hippocampus, which was directly associated with poor glycaemic control.

It remains to be seen whether such changes can be reversed by exercise and diet interventions. While those with diabetes performed worse in all cognitive tasks tested, the differences were only significant for intellectual functioning, verbal memory and psychomotor efficiency.

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