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Oct 13, 2015 12:25 PM EDT

Childhood Head Injury May Lead To Alcohol Abuse Later In Life

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New research suggests that girls who suffer a concussive bump on the head in childhood could be at increased risk for abusing alcohol as adults.

Researchers from Ohio State University conducted a mice study and found that females with a mild closed-head brain injury were more likely to misuse alcohol later in life and associate drinking with reward and pleasure. This effect was not seen in males.

They found that the effect was reversible for female mice living in an enriched environment -- - with more toys and exercise options -- after the injury than for mice living in standard housing conditions. The environmental enrichment prevented increased drinking and reduced degeneration of axons, the long, slender extensions of the nerve cell body.

"We wanted to demonstrate that this effect is not set in stone at the time of injury," Zachary Weil, lead author of the study, said in a statement. "There are ways to intervene, but they're expensive in terms of effort and money. It requires sustained treatment and rehabilitation and educational support."

For the study, researchers created an enriched environment for mice intended to mimic sustained follow-up care after a human brain injury.

Mice received a concussive head injury at age 21 days -- equal to between 6 and 12 years old in humans -- and later were allowed to choose between two bottles containing water and escalating doses of ethanol diluted in water, which was adjusted over time because they don't like the taste. Female adult mice that had been injured at 21 days of age drank significantly more ethanol than uninjured mice. The juvenile head injury had no effect on drinking in male mice.

In this experiment, mice were placed in a box with visibly different patterns covering separate sections of the floor. Over 10 days, researchers injected them with alcohol in specific sections of the box and with saline in other sections.

"Then we let them walk back and forth between boxes. If they liked alcohol, they would spend more time on the side of the box associated with alcohol. Again, we saw this effect only in females that had been injured. They spent about 65 percent of their time in the box linked to alcohol," Weil said. "We had proven to ourselves that there is something about the way reward and pleasure is processed in these animals with regard to alcohol."

Based on their findings, researchers said their best therapy for a childhood brain injury is everybody getting great medical care and rehabilitation, regardless of socioeconomic status.

"People with juvenile head injuries are already at risk for memory problems, difficulty concentrating, poor learning and reduced impulse control. If we can prevent alcohol misuse, chances for a good life are much better," Weil said.

The findings are detailed in the Journal of Neurotrauma

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