Alcohol rots your brain and other lies the government tells you | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Alcohol rots your brain and other lies the government tells you 

Feature: How science became propaganda and fueled Utah’s $3 million anti-teen-drinking campaign

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A Little Calm, Please
When you click on, you can read about drinking studies taken directly from material presented to states by federal health authorities. You won’t learn that the same drinking teenage rats who showed slow thinking skills had better hand-eye coordination, better balance, quicker reaction time and were less likely to pass out than adult rats after the same number of drinks.

“Alcohol effects the teen brain differently,” ParentsEmpowered says. True, but in some cases, not as much.

The site also won’t tell you what happens when rats stop drinking: Their damaged brains repair themselves. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience determined brain development slows in drinking rats but found a “huge burst” of new brain cell development once the teen rats sober up.

The teen brain—rat or human—is very plastic. Similar repair functions appear to occur in human teens. Studies by the San Diego researchers whose brain scans appear on the ParentsEmpowered site found that while some parts of hard-drinking teen brains showed less scan activity, other brain sections showed more activity. It appeared drinking teen brains were able to rewire themselves, recruiting unusual sections to help with tasks normally done by the portions suppressed by alcohol. And it has long been known that brains of adult alcoholics can repair themselves when drinking stops.

The bottom line is this: The kids the San Diego researchers pulled from the drunk tank who stayed sober and were tested eight years later performed as well on thinking tests as their peers who had never touched a drop.

To some, this embrace of new teen-brain research appears to be a recipe for prohibition. Hanson notes it is official federal government policy to decrease alcohol consumption. He complains the result has been a takeover of research by anti-alcohol-activist groups with a vested interest in exaggerating the problem.

“You can’t keep raising money for saving bald eagles if people understand they are coming back,” he says. But hyping the problem only serves to make teens think that “everybody is doing it,” Hanson says.

This summer, the Utah Legislature’s higher-education committee was presented with college-drinking statistics from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (NCASA), an outfit that has been repeatedly charged with publicizing misleading data by the Statistical Assessment Service at George Mason University. The research watchdog organization cheekily refers to NCASA as the “Center for Abuse of Statistical Analysis.”

NCASA’s report trumpeted a 16 percent increase—between 1993 and 2005—in students who had “binged” three times in two weeks and said about 40 percent of college students were now bingers. Lawmakers weren’t told that the same survey found college-drinking rates hadn’t changed during the time period surveyed.

Whether to be alarmed by the persistence of binge drinking among surveyed teens and college students—the Spring 2006 National College Health Survey from the American College Health Association finds a smaller percentage (24 percent) binge—depends on your definition of “binge.”

“One man’s binge is another man’s dinner party,” Hanson says. The definition now used almost universally was developed by the Harvard School of Public Health for its annual college drinking survey: five drinks during an evening for men, or four drinks for women.

If that doesn’t sound like a lot to you, then you won’t be surprised by results of a 2001 study published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. It found 50 percent of so-called “binge” drinkers were, in fact, stone-cold sober, having failed to reach the .08 percent blood-alcohol limit. explains the campaign started because state leaders determined “underage drinking was a huge problem in Utah.” The phrase might cause readers to believe that underage drinking was a huge problem in Utah. It isn’t. As Doug Murakami, director of alcohol education at the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control notes, Utah has long had the lowest rates of teen drinking in the nation, and there is no current evidence to suggest that is changing. Still, he said, some Utah teens are drinking, and the new brain research mandates they be warned to stop.

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