Adolescent caffeine use may heighten anxiety risk

New research may cause parents to think twice before letting their kids drink energy drinks or grande lattes.

A University of Colorado Boulder study published in a recent edition of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology suggests that consumption of caffeine puts adolescents at risk of suffering anxiety-related jitters long after they stop ingesting it.

Anxiety disorders are typically characterized by chronic anxiety or exaggerated worry and tension when not warranted by circumstances. These conditions can also be linked to major psychiatric disorders.

The study ­found that adolescent rats hydrated with caffeinated water developed behaviors indicating anxiety disorders – even after the caffeine was removed from the water. And they did so at an alarming rate.

In addition, researchers found that levels of plasma corticosterone – a stress-related hormone produced by rodents’ adrenal glands – remained high even after the caffeine diet was stopped. In fact, levels of the stress hormone rose dramatically 24 hours after caffeine was eliminated and persisted for an additional week.

Concerns about the impacts of energy drinks on young brains – not to mention other impacts including high blood pressure and arrhythmia – prompted at least one college to ban them. A student and faculty committee at Vermont’s Middlebury College eliminated campus sales, saying energy drinks promoted poor academic environments and elevated student stress.

“One of the things I think is important here is awareness,” said Ryan Bachtell, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and lead study author.

“I don’t think we’re going to ban caffeine – kids have had access to caffeinated sodas for many decades – but what has become the game-changer is these energy drinks. Many of them contain a lot of caffeine, and you are talking about a drug that many of us consider to be innocuous, but it can be quite potent in a developing brain.”

The idea for the study began about three years ago when Bachtell was probing the relationship between adolescent caffeine use and subsequent sensitivity to cocaine use. The study was published last year. That’s when CU-Boulder researchers first began to notice antisocial behaviors in adolescent rats subjected to caffeine.

“If you put two rats together, typically they will have some social interaction – smelling each other or grooming each other,” said Bachtell, whose lab specializes in the neuropharmacology of drug addiction. “What we were originally anticipating was the animal with caffeine would be more aggressive, but they really weren’t interacting at all indicating they may be anxious.”

The new study also suggests that caffeine consumption during adolescent development “may increase vulnerability to the development of psychiatric disorders.”

CU-Boulder Department of Psychology and Neuroscience co-authors of the study include: Robert Spencer, whose lab specializes in the neurobiological basis of psychological stress and stress adaptation; Serge Campeau, who specializes in determination of the brain systems responsible for the perception of stress; graduate students Casey O’Neill and Ryan Newsom; undergraduate research assistants Jacob Stafford, Talia Scott and Solana Archuleta; and professional research assistant Sophia Levis.

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