Science - December 11, 2014

'Not the research results people want to hear'

Albert Sikkema

A couple of beers a day are not bad for the adolescent brain, concluded a Utrecht neuropsychologist this week in her PhD thesis. In a study of 2230 young people, the Utrecht researcher found that moderate alcohol consumption had no negative effects on memory, impulse control or concentration among the young people. This conclusion caused a furore.

‘I feel sorry for the researcher,’ says  Wageningen neuropsychologist Gerry Jager. ‘When I was at  Utrecht I did a similar study on the impact of Ecstasy and  cannabis on young people. There too, we found no effect  for moderate use. But that is not what the public wants to hear. People get cross with you because they think drink  and drugs are bad.’

What are the similarities between this study and yours?

We too concluded that there were no issues with young people who regularly smoke a joint but are otherwise  healthy and problem-free. This kind of study will always include young people with concentration and behaviour problems at school, but they don’t necessarily have anything  to do with alcohol or drugs. The alcohol use could  also be related to another underlying cause.’ 

And ‘coma drinking’ and binge drinking, then?

‘Among young people who indicate that they drink 20  beers a week, there are two extremes. Either they drink  three beers a day, which does little or no harm, or they  drink nothing all week and then down 20 beers on Saturday  night. That is much worse, because then the alcohol  becomes toxic. The details are important.’ 

Surely alcohol comes out of most studies as harmful?

‘There could be an element of publication bias here: it is  difficult to get studies which show no correlation published.  I hope that there will now be a follow-up study to check these results: longitudinal research in which you  monitor the effect of alcohol on young people over several  years. I hear that the Beer Knowledge Institute and  TNO want to do a study of that kind.’