Compelling new evidence suggests that kids who sustain a brain injury in their early years are more likely to have a drink problem as teens and adults. According to Ohio State University researchers, even kids under 5 years of age who suffer a TBI are over 3.6 times more likely to abuse alcohol as teenagers, compared with uninjured children.
A comprehensive study of literature on juvenile TBIs revealed that these early brain injuries can negatively affect important life activities years later, such as the ability to form a long-term romantic relationship, hold down a full-time job or partake in extracurricular activities, all of which can create a sense of stability and fulfillment and help mitigate the risks of substance abuse.
Traumatic brain injuries can also increase impulsive and reckless behaviours in the short and long term, and childhood TBI survivors may drink more as teens and adults as a way to deal with the negative consequences of their actions.
Brain inflammation is caused by concussion, and animal studies suggests that this inflammation might drive drinking (alcohol also generates neuroinflammation), even years after a brain injury was sustained.
And finally specific neurochemical systems in the brain, such as the dopaminergic (reward) pathways, that are especially vulnerable during childhood development could be damaged when a kid suffers a brain injury. This is yet another risk factor in substance abuse.
So, how to address these potential problems?
"Specifically targeting substance-abuse problems in the brain-injured population could do a lot of good," says researcher Zachary Weil."
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, all parents should already be speaking to their kids about drinking by age nine. If your kid has sustained a TBI, it is important, when they reach their teen years, to stay extra vigilant to signs of alcohol abuse and be proactive in its prevention and treatment. And while unfortunately accidents--and concussions--happen, parents can both minimize the risks and improve recovery outcomes by educating themselves about traumatic brain injuries, particularly if their child participates in contact sports.