A new research study has investigated the link between traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in children and future alcohol abuse. The study concludes that there is supporting evidence that TBIs sustained in childhood increase the risk for alcohol abuse behavior as an adult.1 This is not research looking at alcohol’s role in causing TBIs, which is a different consideration altogether – alcohol intoxication is estimated to be involved in upwards of 50% of all emergency room visits for TBIs in the U.S.2 It seems that the inverse of this trend is also true, that sustaining a head injury can lead to over-drinking.
The study apparently intended to look at this relationship among adults, but found that it was very difficult to flush out which had happened first, since many adults sustaining head injuries were already heavy drinkers; it was hard to conclude whether or not the head injuries were having any affect on drinking behavior. However, there seemed to be a strong correlation to people suffering a TBI in childhood or adolescence and drinking problems later in life. Children under 5 years old who suffer a TBI are almost four times more likely to abuse alcohol as a teenager compared to other children.
TBI Patients and Alcohol Correlation
A theory of why this is was proposed by the researchers, that many elements which lower risk for alcohol abuse are lost in TBI patients. Some of these elements are the ability to sustain romantic relationships, community/school involvement (extracurricular activities), and maintaining full-time employment, all of which are linked to lowered risk of substance abuse, but often are compromised in brain injury patients. There are also psychological aspects which are likely involved, such as the use of alcohol to help cope with negative feelings or consequences of the injury. Lastly, TBIs may injure neurochemical systems in the brain, specifically the dopaminergic system. Dysfunction in dopamine processing is a risk factor for substance abuse.
- Weil ZM, Karelina K. Traumatic Brain Injuries during Development: Implications for Alcohol Abuse. Front Behav Neurosci. 2017;11:135.
- Cherpitel CJ. Alcohol and injuries: a review of international emergency room studies. Addiction. 1993;88(7):923-37.
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Node Smith, associate editor for NDNR, is a fifth year naturopathic medical student at NUNM, where he has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine among the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend camp-out where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Three years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision.