Dr. Gina Fernandez Analyzes Effects of Alcohol in Brains of Adolescents

Photo courtesy of smcm.edu

Dr. Gina Fernandez, researcher and professor of psychology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM), gave a lecture on the dangers of young people binge drinking in Goodpaster Hall on Feb. 5. During her presentation, she shared the results of an experiment which found that repeated binge drinking during adolescence could cause damage to the frontal cortex of the brain.

Fernandez received her bachelor’s of science in psychology from the College of William and Mary and then her master’s and doctorate from George Mason University. In 2017, she became an assistant professor at SMCM. Fernandez has had several publications within the psychology field.

Fernandez explained that typical behavioral characteristics of teens, such as risk-taking behavior, searching for the next “high,” impulsivity, increased peer-to-peer interaction and sensation seeking are what lead teens to binge drinking alcohol. According to Fernandez, many drugs such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana and alcohol increase dopamine levels in the brain during their use, which trigger feelings of pleasure to the body. Fernandez also mentioned that adolescents find alcohol more appealing than adults because they don’t experience hangovers as intensely. Although it may have appealing short-term effects, Fernandez explained that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and decreases learning and memory ability.

Fernandez began the lecture by outlining the process of her experiment. Because the Institutional Review Board —  a group that ensures all experiments are executed ethically —-  does not allow testing on human subjects, she utilized 28-50 day-old rats to model adolescent humans 12 to 18 years old. She studied adolescent intermittent ethanol exposure, which she hypothesized would interfere with reasonable thinking. This experiment was done in conjunction with a professor at Binghamton University, where Fernandez was a postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department.  

In her experiment, she mimicked the pattern of high intoxication and withdrawal that is typical of adolescent binge drinking behavior by deliberately giving the rats a high amount of ethanol (a type of alcohol that won’t harm the rats) at one time, and none on other days. Fernandez explained that binge drinking was previously considered to be four to five drinks within a two-hour period in the past, but now is defined as any drinking that causes a blood alcohol level of .08, the driving limit in Maryland, or above.

A month after the ethanol exposure process, she executed tests on spatial memory and cognitive flexibility. By this time, the rats were well into rat adulthood. Her studies concluded that although spatial memory wasn’t affected, early adolescent binge drinking leads to deficits in cognitive flexibility, the ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts. In the behavioral trial used to test cognitive flexibility, it took the alcohol-affected rats a significantly longer time to complete a desired task.

Alcohol exposure causes impairments in frontal cortical functioning, the parts of the brain that are involved in processes such as motor functioning, sexual behavior, and impulse control. These deficits are long lasting, indicative of an adolescent-like phenotype that continues into adulthood.

Essentially, Dr. Fernandez explained, our brains get stuck in “teen mode.” She joked that we all want to move on from our awkward 15-year-old selves and avoid this. This may be especially important for young adolescents because the earlier one starts drinking, the higher chance one has of developing a reliance on the substance in the future.

She concluded with mentioning that she wants to expand her research to explore the effects of combined drug use during adolescence. Although alcohol is the substance that affects the most teens, many adolescents may mix drinking with smoking marijuana or nicotine.

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