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Scholar Spotlight: Heather Richardson on the Influence of Alcohol on Adolescents

Heather Richardson

Heather Richardson’s research exemplifies the breadth and translational nature of the work conducted by scholars of the Center for Research on Families. Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the Neurobiology of Stress and Addiction Lab, Richardson conducts innovative laboratory research on the humble lab rat, and has extrapolated her findings to adolescents in the real world.

Heather Richardson participated in the CRF Family Research Scholars program during 2010-11. Over the course of the Scholar year, Heather met regularly with a small multidisciplinary group of social, behavioral and life science faculty. Her project involved an original model that gave adolescent rats the opportunity to get drunk in order to learn what they could tell us about drinking in human teenagers. The group feedback and constructive discussions produced a proposal entitled “The Effect of Voluntary Binge Drinking on the Prefrontal Cortex in Adolescent Rats,” which was subsequently funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism for its innovative approach.

Her research model was unique on many counts. While previous research had shown that teenage alcohol abuse significantly increases risk of alcohol dependency in adulthood, scientists were unsure whether some teenagers have a predisposition that attracts them to alcohol or if the drug alters stress behaviors and reward circuits in the brain, or both. Richardson sought to untangle the question of predisposition to the use of alcohol by using an animal model that enabled her to measure the amounts of alcohol ingested and the resultant effects on the brain. Rat brain structures and functions are fundamentally similar to humans. In addition, they have a short lifespan that compresses their development to a manageable time frame, allowing researchers to observe how a substance might change the brain through growth and maturation. 

Using an animal model, Richardson set out to make the drinking experience as close to humans’ experience as possible. Early adolescent rats were randomly assigned to a bottle of heavily sweetened alcohol or water, which they were trained to release by pressing a lever. Both groups had equal access to the sweetened solution, regular water, and food. The novelty and key to Richardson’s model is that the drinking behavior is voluntary.

“They actually need to go through the motor programs to seek and drink the alcohol, they need to learn the associations, and get the alcohol into the body through drinking as opposed to injection,” Richardson said.

After the two year study, Richardson found that the rats’ binge drinking in early adolescence led to long-term changes in both the anatomical brain structures involved in stress regulation and in the distribution of myelin, the fatty material insulating the electrical pathways of brain cells in the prefrontal cortex.

Richardson’s findings shed new significance on the issue of teenage binge drinking. Adolescence marks a significant time in brain development; a teens’ prefrontal cortex, the vital center of control, is still forming. Teens’ decision-making abilities are typically more influenced by emotions, because their brains rely more on the limbic system (the emotional seat of the brain, or the area of the brain that seeks pleasure) than the rational prefrontal cortex. Binge drinking appears to tip the balance even further – and perhaps permanently toward the limbic system and away from rational control.

Richardson’s work is an example of the Center for Research on Families’ commitment to translational research focused on enhancing the public good. Richardson’s research has direct, immediate implications for personal health. In addition, her work has illuminated promising paths forward in several disciplines to address substance abuse. Her work is a great example of how the substantive multidisciplinary work CRF supports, benefits UMass and the world beyond.

This article appears in the Center for Research on Families' 2014 Annual Report. Click here to read the entire report online or here to download a PDF file.