Opinion: the intersection of culture, age and alcohol is a risk for the future brain health of our country

I research the effects of alcohol use on the brain so I watched the gatherings of students in Galway on Monday night with an academic eye. On Tuesday morning, headlines were full of indignation and one local politician called for the army to be deployed. Was that really the answer, to impose martial law on the streets of Galway? No, it was not. We weren't calling for the same response over the summer when the Spanish Arch retained its place as the jewel in the crown of Galway's outdoor drinking culture. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Claire Byrne. a discussion on this week's student street parties in Galway with FF senator Ollie Crowe (who is calling for the army to be deployed), publican Johnny Dugan, restauranteur JP McMahon and NUIG Students Union rep Pádraic Toomey

Ireland, we have a problem. We raise our young people in a culture of excessive alcohol use and cry havoc when they follow in our footsteps. We use alcohol as a social lubricant, a bonding tool, a facilitator of celebration and commiseration.

In Ireland, we hold the age of 18 in high esteem, the day we can legally consume alcohol, and ignore the fact that on average our first alcoholic drink passes our lips at 15.5 years of age. The Health Research Board has found that we tend to drink alcohol less frequently than our European counterparts, yet at higher amounts when we do. In 2018, 37% of our community reported binge drinking, with 22% of that figure doing so weekly, despite this our knowledge of the impacts of alcohol use on the brain is limited.

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From RTÉ One's Prime Time, the reality of binge drinking in Ireland

This intersection of culture, age and alcohol is a risk for the future brain health of our country. Neuroimaging tells us that the brain continues to develop until the age of 25, with the frontal areas of the brain being the last to mature. We also know that the frontal areas of the brain are responsible for what we call 'high order cognitive processes’, which means how we plan, how we stop impulses that will impact us negatively, how we understand and regulate our emotions.

It is also this area of the brain that guides how our personalities develop into adulthood. Binge drinking alcohol at the age of 19 is associated with difficulties in how areas of our frontal cortex work together and with a lack of development of impulse control. Binge alcohol use can impact the development of the brain and personality.

Rob Whelan at Trinity College Dublin has found that binge alcohol use in adolescence could be predicted by the interaction of multiple factors measured earlier in life. Some of these factors are having a family history of alcohol use, displaying differences in the size of areas in the front of the brain, and differences in personality such as a higher likelihood to seek out novel and rewarding experiences. This suggests that living in a culture that is permissive towards alcohol use, with a drive to seek out new experiences can increase the likelihood alcohol misuse.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland in 2014, a discussion on the World Health Organisation's report  that Ireland has the second highest rate of binge drinking in the world

What about our new students who have been promised a student experience? They have packed up and moved away from home, and are now finding that what they were promised is not what they've got. What do we mean by a student experience? Generally, we mean lectures, tutorials, labs and, of course, the social aspect of university life - and in Ireland socialising comes with alcohol.

A small group of students are being vilified for socialising and consuming alcohol. Most of these young people are celebrating Freshers Week in the same manner as every generation before them with the socially acceptable few pints. Unfortunately, a small proportion of the total student population are doing it without social distancing in a pandemic.

Decision makers must realise that there are contextual factors that need to be considered around decisions that impact on young people. Young people need to socialise so don’t be surprised when they conform to a cultural norm, such as binge drinking, when they do this.

We need to consider why reopening pubs and bars was one of the most anticipated milestones in Covid Ireland

So what's the answer here? We need to start thinking and talking about why we cannot socialise, celebrate, and commiserate without alcohol. We need to consider why reopening pubs and bars was one of the most anticipated milestones in Covid Ireland. We need to contemplate what we want our relationship with alcohol to be, and how we communicate with our community, young and old about alcohol use and its impacts on them.

We all need better access to information about what alcohol use is doing to our brains. We need more funding for brain-based research on the effects of alcohol use and more brain-based scientific evidence to support the reasons why a student experience on university campuses should not be shorthand for getting drunk. We cannot live with the lifelong hangover when we had a chance to change our alcohol culture during lockdown and did nothing about it.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ