Academic journal article Alcohol Research

Modeling Adolescent Development and Alcohol Use in Animals

Academic journal article Alcohol Research

Modeling Adolescent Development and Alcohol Use in Animals

Article excerpt

Though certain characteristics found in human adolescents are clearly unique, there are other key characteristics of this developmental stage that are common across a number of species. Animal models offer researchers unique insight into the effects of alcohol on the adolescent. This age period is particularly important for study, because this is the time during which many people first experiment with alcohol. It is possible that features of the adolescent brain may in fact predispose a youngster to behave in ways that place him or her at particular risk for experimenting with alcohol or other drugs. In addition to behavioral changes, a number of important physiological alterations occur during adolescence, including changes in brain regions implicated in modulating the reinforcing effects of alcohol and other drugs of abuse. KEY WORDS: animal model; adolescent; AOD (alcohol or other drug) use; psychological development; neural development; sensation-seeking behavior; risk-taking behavior; frontal cortex; stress; neurobehavioral theory of AODU (AOD use, abuse, and dependence)

the transition between childhood and adulthood is associated with a variety of developmental challenges. During this time, childrenas well as youngsters from a variety of species-acquire the behavioral skills necessary to enable them to live independendy, away from parental caregivers. Though certain characteristics found in human adolescents are clearly unique, there are other key characteristics of this developmental stage that are common across a number of species.

Animal models offer researchers unique insight into the effects of alcohol on the adolescent. Adolescence is particularly important for study because it is during this time that many people first experiment with alcohol. It is possible that features of the adolescent brain may in fact predispose a youngster to behave in ways that place him or her at particular risk for trying alcohol or other drugs. These characteristics may have evolved to enable the adolescent to conquer this critical developmental transition. For instance, like their human counterparts, rats undergoing the developmental transition of adolescence show a marked increase in the amount of time spent in social investigation and interaction with peers. They also are more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior, and they seek out new situations and explore unknown areas more avidly than they would at either a younger age or in adulthood.

In addition to these behavioral changes, a number of important physiological changes occur during adolescence, including significant hormonal and neural alterations. Brain areas that show particularly marked alterations during adolescence are the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and mesolimbic regions of the forebrain in which dopamine (DA), a key brain chemical, is found. These regions also have been implicated in modulating the reinforcing effects of alcohol and other drugs of abuse.

This article begins by defining the period known as adolescence and drawing distinctions between adolescence in humans and in other animal species. Next, the article reviews research findings from studies of animal models of alcohol and adolescence and discusses the need for developing adolescent models of alcohol effects in other species as well.

DEFINING ADOLESCENCE

In general, adolescence can be defined as the gradual period of transition between youth/immaturity and adulthood. There is a tendency to associate adolescence with puberty. Yet the process of adolescence is not synonymous with puberty. Instead, puberty is but one of several important developmental changes that occur along the timeline that comprises adolescence. In fact, many of the behaviors that define adolescence, such as risk taking, alcohol and drug use, and considerable peer influence, are common in settings such as college and the military as individuals move toward autonomy, and these individuals are well past sexual maturity. …

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