|Vol. 4, No. 4, 1998 Page 4&5|
Most teens experiment with alcohol, but only a minority become problem drinkers. That minority, however, causes enormous problems for society and for the criminal justice system.
Why do some teens fail to keep their drinking under control? A new study indicates that while many factors play a role in adolescent alcohol abuse, one of these factors-prenatal alcohol exposure-is particularly important.
John Baer and colleagues studied 439 14-year-olds and their families, all of whom were participants in the Seattle Longitudinal Study on Alcohol and Pregnancy. The teens provided information about how much and how often they drank.
As expected, Baer and his colleagues found that adolescents with a family history of alcohol abuse were more likely to be problem drinkers than other teens-a finding supported by many other studies. However, they say, "Prenatal alcohol exposure was more predictive of adolescent alcohol use and its negative consequences than was family history of alcohol problems." The effects of prenatal alcohol exposure remained strong even when the researchers controlled for family history and for a number of prenatal and environmental factors. (The role of family history, by contrast, was substantially weaker when the researchers controlled for prenatal alcohol exposure and other factors.)
Baer et al. suggest that the connection between prenatal alcohol exposure and later alcohol abuse has been overlooked because researchers have only investigated the effects of heavy exposure. Yet animal studies reveal, they say, that even moderate alcohol exposure can harm a fetus.
The researchers conclude that many risk factors commonly linked to serious drinking in adolescence-including impulsivity, conduct disorder, and brain dysfunction-could result, at least in part, from exposure to alcohol during prenatal development.
"Prenatal alcohol exposure and family history of alcoholism in the etiology of adolescent alcohol problems," John S. Baer, Helen M. Barr, Fred L. Bookstein, Paul D. Sampson, and Ann P. Streissguth, Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Vol. 59, September 1998, pp. 533-543. Address: Ann P. Streissguth, Fetal Alcohol and Drug Unit, 180 Nickerson St., Suite 309, Seattle, WA 98109.