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Soda may be a gateway drug for young children

A recent study has uncovered a startling correlation between the consumption of daily caffeinated soda and the likelihood of trying alcohol within a year among nine-to-ten-year-old children. 

This longitudinal study spanned over 2,000 children in the United States, revealing that those who consumed caffeinated soda every day were twice as likely to have experimented with alcohol after a year. 

Potential gateway 

These findings are concerning for several reasons, not least of which is the implication of caffeinated soda as a potential gateway to substance use at a young age.

The research team, led by Mina Kwon from the Department of Psychology at Seoul National University, found that habitual consumption of caffeinated soda not only linked to early alcohol use but also corresponded with increased impulsivity and decreased working memory in children – two factors that are known to predispose individuals to substance use disorders. 

Focus of the study

The study was based on data from the expansive Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, which focuses on brain development and child health.

The cognitive capabilities of the participating children were assessed through various tasks while their brain activity was monitored. 

What the researchers learned 

The study revealed that daily consumers of caffeinated soda displayed distinctive brain activity patterns compared to non-consumers. 

Specifically, during impulse control tasks, they showed reduced activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a pattern often observed in individuals with ADHD and substance use disorders. 

Additionally, in tasks testing working memory, these children exhibited less activation in the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) of the frontal lobe, which is crucial for memory functions.

Predictive of substance use 

“Our findings suggest that daily consumption of caffeinated soda in children is predictive of substance use in the near future. One possible explanation is that the substances contained in caffeinated soda (caffeine and sugar) could induce a toxicological effect on the brain, making the individual more sensitive to the reinforcing effects of harder drugs like alcohol,” said study lead author Mina Kwon.

Possible explanations

This idea aligns with the “gateway hypothesis.” However, the “common liability hypothesis” suggests that children prone to impulsivity might naturally gravitate towards substances like caffeine, setting a pattern that could lead to the use of alcohol and potentially other drugs as they grow older.

The idea behind this theory is that children who are naturally less able to regulate their impulses are more likely to seek out and try substances like caffeine at an early age. Then as they get older and it becomes easier to access illicit substances, they may progress onto harder drugs like alcohol.

Study implications 

“Frequently consuming caffeinated soda could indicate a higher risk of initiating substance use in the future, due to the common risk factors between the two behaviours,” said Professor Woo-Young Ahn.

“Our results have important implications for public health recommendations, as our study provides novel insight into the neurobehavioral correlates of caffeinated soda consumption in children, which has rarely been evaluated.

“It’s vital, therefore, to develop evidence-based recommendations for caffeinated soda consumption in minors. There is no consensus on a safe dose of caffeine in children, and some children might be more vulnerable to adverse effects associated with frequent caffeine consumption than others.”

Study limitations 

Limitations of the team’s findings include a “substantial number” of samples with missing data, which led to their exclusion from the analyses.

“As a result, there is a possibility that the excluded data is missing not at random, potentially influencing our findings,” wrote the study authors. 

“Although we supported the robustness of our main results by applying statistical methods that could control for other confounding variables, we also acknowledge that multiple variables other than caffeinated soda intake may mediate the relationship between neurobehavioral risk factors and future alcohol use.”

The experts say there is a “critical need” for future research to see if there is a pattern between the consumption of caffeinated soda among nine-to-10-year-olds and their use of other harder substances as they age.

The study is published in the journal Substance Use & Misuse.

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