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Volume 22, Number 1, April 2011

Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies Director Fulton Crews, Ph.D., will lead a multi-institutional, multidisciplinary research initiative entitled, “Neurobiology of Adolescent Drinking in Adulthood” (NADIA), with funding from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a component of the National Institutes of Health. The five-year collaborative initiative includes faculty from eight universities and research centers across the US focused on understanding the impact of underage drinking on the brain. The ultimate goal of the NADIA Project is to determine if underage drinking causes changes in brain function that persist in adulthood.

Initial studies will focus on the maturation of the brain during the adolescent years. Studies of earlier brain development are based on clear morphological changes that permit definition of specific stages during childhood. The adolescent brain is physically similar to that of adults, making it more difficult to chart later brain development. Additionally, puberty occurs during adolescence and the associated hormonal changes can influence behavior. Recent studies indicate that human brain continues to mature into the third decade of life, so post-pubertal influences are likely important as well.

NADIA investigations plan to relate maturation of motivation, mood, impulsiveness and decision making to changes in brain anatomy, chemistry, neurocircuitry and physiology and therefore provide a more precise definition of adolescent brain development and the mechanisms involved. This may help to explain why adolescents are relatively resistant to the sleep inducing effects of alcohol and particularly sensitive to its cognitive effects.
Delayed development of the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps to control emotions and impulses, is thought to contribute to adolescent risk taking, thrill seeking, binge-drinking and poor behavioral control. Brain development is sensitive to many factors, including genetics, environment, stress and drinking history that can complicate interpretation of the consequences of adolescent drinking in humans. The NADIA Project uses rat models of adolescent alcohol exposure that can control all of these variables. Investigators will use these models to mimic episodic human underage drinking and determine the long-term molecular, cellular, physiological, gene expression, neuroanatomical and behavioral consequences. Identification of alcohol-related changes in adult brain and behavior will provide evidence for an “adolescent alcohol syndrome.”

The NADIA Project investigators provide a broad range of expertise in neuroanatomy, pharmacology, neurochemistry and psychology. In addition to Crews, the team includes Judson Chandler, Ph.D., (Medical University of South Carolina), Cindy Ehlers, Ph.D., (Scripps Research Institute), Athina Markou, Ph.D., (UC, San Diego), Subhash Pandey, Ph.D., (University of Illinois, Chicago), Catherine Rivier, Ph.D., (Salk Institute for Biological Studies), Linda Spear, Ph.D., (Binghamton University), Martin Styner, Ph.D., (UNC), and Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D., (Duke University).