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Previous research has indicated that infants, but not adults, might find the taste of alcohol reinforcing. Infants readily consume even high concentrations, up to at least 30 percent alcohol, whereas adults are reluctant to consume concentrations higher than six percent alcohol, and will do so only after weeks or months of training; even then they will rarely accept an alcohol concentration higher than 10 percent.
"Alcohol reinforcement in adult rats has been attributed largely to its pharmacological consequences. This was much less clear for infant rats, which is the reason for the present study."
"Fetuses and infants have an amazing capacity to learn and form associations among events in their environment," added Jennifer D. Thomas, assistant professor of psychology at San Diego State University. "If an infant is exposed to the odor of alcohol in the environment, or the combined taste, odor and pharmacological effects of alcohol during fetal development or breast feeding, it is important to determine how this experience affects preference for alcohol and levels of alcohol consumption later in life. In fact, studies indicate that fetal exposure to alcohol is associated with subsequent alcohol use and abuse. This study demonstrates that the pharmacological effects of alcohol, independent of orosensory cues, contribute to the reinforcing properties of ethanol in the developing fetus/infant."
Researchers examined 196 newborn rats during three experiments. The first experiment paired the infants' experience of suckling on a nipple providing water with alcohol administered through an abdominal injection. This method of alcohol administration minimized its olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) attributes.
The second experiment paired alcohol with an empty nipple, or alcohol with water delivered apart from a nipple. Experiment three examined blood alcohol concentrations five minutes and 60 minutes after one of four doses of alcohol administered through an abdominal injection.
"Our key finding is that an injection of alcohol, with essentially no accompanying taste or odor, is sufficiently reinforcing to allow a newborn rat to learn with only a single experience what predicted the alcohol," said Varlinskaya. "Since there was negligible odor, taste or calories involved, the rewarding effect of injected alcohol must be derived from its effect on areas of the brain activated by drugs of abuse rather than the taste or smell. This implies that the basis of alcohol reinforcement is the same in newborn rats as in adults. This suggests that animals and people may find alcohol rewarding for the same reasons throughout their development."
"From a basic science standpoint," added Thomas, "this study will help us to understand the development of brain regions important for the reinforcing effects of alcohol and the types of associations that can be learned. The study has implications for infants exposed to alcohol in utero or via breastfeeding. Exposure to alcohol during development can be teratogenic, damaging the brain and altering behavioral development.
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