The frontal lobe is an essential structure for the correct functioning of our brain, since it regulates the distinctive functions of the human being. Thanks to the constant communication between the neurons that make up this area, we have the ability to manipulate highly abstract mental representations; We can relate some concepts to others, hypothesize about the future to make smarter decisions and develop and execute action plans. We could say that, without a frontal lobe, we would be disabled in such a way that it would be impossible for us to carry out any daily activity.
Now, under certain circumstances, there is the possibility that the frontal lobe develops abnormally or with notable functional deficiencies. One of the factors that can cause this is prolonged consumption of alcohol in significant quantities. Alcohol in high concentrations can cause severe alterations in cognitive functioning, perception and motor functions in the frontal lobe – and the central nervous system in general; but it can also functionally and morphologically modify the frontal and temporal lobes, the limbic system and the cerebellum. These effects are even more harmful when alcohol is consumed during childhood, adolescence and early youth, since our brain only finishes developing around the age of twenty-five. Before that moment, we find ourselves in a period of great vulnerability, so The consumption of substances such as alcohol can affect the correct development of the frontal lobe. Let’s see how he does it.
Normal functioning of the frontal lobe
To know what the effects of alcohol are on the development of the frontal lobe, it is first necessary to be able to recognize its functions in optimal conditions.
In the first instance, we know that the frontal lobes are the most recent brain structures in phylogenetic terms; that is, in the history of the human being as a species. Roughly, The frontal lobes are responsible for planning, regulating and controlling psychological processes. —specifically, the prefrontal cortex is in charge of this—; and, at the same time, they allow choosing and coordinating between a set of possible strategies and behaviors based on the challenges of the environment and the personal goals and objectives of the individual. Within the frontal lobes we can distinguish various areas composed of neurons connected to each other via chemical synapses and that have specific functions.
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The frontal lobe is essentially made up of the prefrontal cortex, the premotor area, and the primary motor area. One of the many functions of the prefrontal cortex is human executive functioning. Executive functions are crucial for adaptation to the environment and social life of the human being.
Some executive functions are inhibitory control, that is, the ability to inhibit those behaviors considered inappropriate by the social context; cognitive flexibility, that is, the ability to change strategies according to environmental and social circumstances; or working memory, which allows us to operate with the information coming from the stimuli in the environment while we retrieve the information that we have stored in our long-term memory (namely, knowledge about the world, about ourselves, or how to carry out specific procedures or practices).
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The prefrontal, premotor, and primary motor areas
One of the executive functions that we have thanks to the functioning of the prefrontal cortex is behavioral planning. Thanks to this function we are able to formulate hypotheses, relate them to each other without needing their deployment in reality, and thus adapt to the environment efficiently.
When we face a novel situation, another area, the premotor area, receives the plan that was developed in the prefrontal cortex and fixes and inscribes it at the synaptic level. For its part, the primary motor area is responsible for commanding the execution of this plan, sending the signal to the cerebellum to specify the motor activity of the body’s muscles when it is necessary to act. The connectivity of the frontal lobes with other structures of the brain and the nervous system in general is high.
Basically, we depend on this circuit to be carried out efficiently in order to deploy all the possibilities within our behavioral repertoire.
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Frontal lobe alterations due to alcohol consumption
Since the functions of the frontal lobe are involved in the differentiating functions of the human being, it is expected that the deterioration of this region will cause significant changes in cognition, emotional regulation and social performance. When suffering from an alcohol use disorder is the main cause of said alterations, People tend to behave in an uninhibited manner and carry out inappropriate and impulsive behaviors. They are also unable to measure the consequences of their own actions.
According to the review carried out by Cristóvão-Calado and collaborators, significant structural alterations have been found through neuroimaging studies in the brains of people suffering from alcoholism. Likewise, it has been found that alcohol consumption is related to less cognitive flexibility, verbal fluency, social adaptation and greater memory impairment. Furthermore, in the most severe cases of alcoholism, the functioning of Broca’s area may be altered, a small region of the brain close to the frontal lobe—some authors include it within it—that is responsible for regulating and producing the necessary laryngeal and gesticular movements. to speak and communicate.
All of these alterations correspond to the effects of alcoholism on the frontal lobe. In general, research has been carried out through neuroimaging or neuropsychological performance studies in adult subjects. However, excessive alcohol consumption during the period of frontal lobe development, from childhood to early youth, represents a “window” of vulnerability which can cause irreversible effects. The maturation of the frontal lobe culminates around the ages of approximately twenty-one and twenty-five.
However, the effects can become tangible long before then. Conclusive proof of this is fetal alcohol syndrome, a medical term used to refer to the physical, mental and growth problems that a baby presents when its mother consumes alcohol during pregnancy. The development of the central nervous system begins around the third week of gestation, so from that moment on we are susceptible to these developmental alterations. After alcohol consumption, the fetal brain is one of the most affected organs and can be damaged at any time during pregnancy and, ultimately, throughout life. We must take care of the frontal lobe, as well as any other part of our body.
Maria Eugenia Martinez Villegas García
Maria Eugenia Martinez Villegas García
Mental Health, Clinical Psychology, NLP, EI and Coach
Taking these data into account, it is crucial to implement intervention programs in different educational centers to inform children, adolescents, young people and families about the consequences that alcohol consumption can have on the brain.