Age-related differences in the effect of chronic alcohol on cognition and the brain: A systematic review

Lauren Kuhns, Emese Kroon, Heidi Lesscher, Gabry Mies, Janna Cousijn

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Adolescence is an important developmental period associated with increased risk for excessive alcohol use, but also high rates of recovery from alcohol use-related problems, suggesting potential resilience to long-term effects compared to adults. The aim of this systematic review is to evaluate the current evidence for a moderating role of age on the impact of chronic alcohol exposure on the brain and cognition. We searched Medline, PsycInfo, and Cochrane Library databases up to February 3, 2021. All human and animal studies that directly tested whether the relationship between chronic alcohol exposure and neurocognitive outcomes differs between adolescents and adults were included. Study characteristics and results of age-related analyses were extracted into reference tables and results were separately narratively synthesized for each cognitive and brain-related outcome. The evidence strength for age-related differences varies across outcomes. Human evidence is largely missing, but animal research provides limited but consistent evidence of heightened adolescent sensitivity to chronic alcohol's effects on several outcomes, including conditioned aversion, dopaminergic transmission in reward-related regions, neurodegeneration, and neurogenesis. At the same time, there is limited evidence for adolescent resilience to chronic alcohol-induced impairments in the domain of cognitive flexibility, warranting future studies investigating the potential mechanisms underlying adolescent risk and resilience to the effects of alcohol. The available evidence from mostly animal studies indicates adolescents are both more vulnerable and potentially more resilient to chronic alcohol effects on specific brain and cognitive outcomes. More human research directly comparing adolescents and adults is needed despite the methodological constraints. Parallel translational animal models can aid in the causal interpretation of observed effects. To improve their translational value, future animal studies should aim to use voluntary self-administration paradigms and incorporate individual differences and environmental context to better model human drinking behavior.

Original languageEnglish
Article number345
JournalTranslational Psychiatry
Issue number1
Early online date25 Aug 2022
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022

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Publisher Copyright: © 2022, The Author(s).

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