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The Hidden Epidemic of Very Young Alcoholics

Why Treatment Is Tough

After her frightening bout with alcohol poisoning, Mary Brennan told her father she thought she needed help. But he was unable to grasp the seriousness of her problem. "I think he was in denial," says Mary. "He said, 'You're only 15. There's no way that it's already out of hand. It can't be that bad.'" He sent her to an outpatient treatment center in their suburban town. "It was hard to take the program seriously," Mary recalls. "The people who ran it were amazing, but they were only with us a few hours a day. After a while, I realized that half the kids in there were lying about their drinking, about wanting to quit. I started drinking again too." For two years after her unsuccessful trip to rehab, Mary led a double life. To her dad and her counselors, she was "in recovery." To her friends, she was a party animal who still drank every day. Brooke and Chad also bounced out of their first outpatient rehab programs and continued drinking.

Nine out of 10 teens who get treatment for alcohol abuse will relapse at least once, according to Judi Hanson, program director of Sobriety High West Academy in Edina, MN, a charter school for teens with substance-abuse problems. Emerging research suggests that part of the reason may be changes in brain development caused by early alcohol abuse: Very young drinkers may prime themselves to seek out alcohol even if it makes them sick, according to a 2006 animal study.

Jaime Diaz-Granados, M.D., chairman of the psychology and neuroscience department at Baylor University, exposed adolescent mice to alcohol. Then, when the mice grew up, he and his team offered them alcohol again. "We found that if we first exposed animals to alcohol as adolescents, they would seek it out as adults, even though it then made them sick," he says. A different group of mice got its first illness-inducing exposure to alcohol in adulthood. When these mice were offered alcohol a second time, they refused it. "This relates to children," Dr. Diaz-Granados explains. "Early drinking can alter normal brain development, leaving the adult more vulnerable to drinking problems."

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