Researchers from the Technische Universität in Dresden, Germany state that adolescence is a critical period for maturation of cognitive control and most adolescents start experimenting with alcohol around that time. On the one hand, recent studies indicate that low control abilities predict future problematic alcohol use. On the other hand, binge drinking during young adulthood can (further) impair cognitive control. However, so far no study examined the effects of low-level alcohol use during adolescence.
The researchers conducted a longitudinal functional MRI (fMRI) study to investigate the development of cognitive control in a community-based sample of 92 adolescents at ages 14, 16 and 18. Two different cognitive control functions, i.e. inhibition of prepotent responses (operationalized by incongruence effects) and switching between different task sets, were measured within one task. Alcohol use in the sample was low (mean: 54 g/week at age 18). The study revealed that neither behavioural nor neural measures of cognitive control function at age 14 predicted alcohol use at age 18 but confirmed established predictors such as gender and personality.
As expected, from age 14 to 18, cognitive control abilities were improving (decreased reaction times and/or errors), and activation of cognitive control networks (dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and presupplementary motor area) during incongruent trials increased.
Unexpectedly, higher alcohol consumption during adolescence was associated with a more pronounced increase in cognitive performance and a smaller increase of neural activation when incongruent trials afforded inhibitory control.
The researchers conclude that low-level alcohol use during adolescence does not severely impair ongoing maturation of cognitive control abilities and networks.
Source: Low-level alcohol consumption during adolescence and its impact on cognitive control development. Jurk S, Mennigen E, Goschke T, Smolka MN. Addiction Biology. Vol 23, No 1, 2018, pp313-326 7