For parents who are tempted to order their kids a can of Coca-Cola, a new study from researchers in South Korea and Virginia may dissuade them.
The study, published in the journal Substance Use & Misuse, looked at more than 2,000 American children from the ages of nine to ten and found that kids who drink caffeinated soda on a daily basis tend to be more impulsive, have poor working memory — and, most provocatively, more likely to try drinking alcohol at a younger age.
"Our findings suggest that daily consumption of caffeinated soda in children is predictive of substance use in the near future," said Seoul National University psychology graduate student and study lead author Mina Kwon in a statement. "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."
The research team examined data from the National Institutes of Health's Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study and performed statistical analysis to see if there were any correlations between drinking caffeinated soda daily and "well-known risk factors of substance misuse: impaired working memory, high impulsivity, and aberrant reward processing." They also examined brain activity from children who were asked to perform certain tasks to assess their working memory and impulsivity level.
Researchers found that kids who drank soda daily were "associated with neurobehavioral risk factors for substance misuse such as higher impulsivity scores and lower working memory performance." They also found out that these children were more than twice as likely to sip alcohol in a year.
Their research suggests that caffeinated drinks is a "gateway" to alcohol. That's a reference to the "gateway hypothesis," commonly used in the context of marijuana. The idea was that kids who dabble in light drugs are more likely to later graduate to harder ones as time goes on, though further study on the hypothesis has been controversial and open to significant interpretation and disagreement.
In the context of sugary drinks, though, it just might hold up.
"Thus, one possible explanation of higher alcohol sipping rate of the daily-drinking group in our study is that the substances contained in caffeinated soda (caffeine and sugar) may have induced neurophysiological effects and reinforced regular soda drinkers to try alcohol after 12 months," the scientists wrote.
But they also acknowledge a classic statistical pitfall: that children who go on to use harder substances were already genetically predisposed to addictive behaviors. Basically, a child could already have poor impulse control prior to picking up a soda habit.
The team called for further research to untangle all these various risk factors while also advocating for figuring out a safe, recommended dosage of caffeinated soda for children.
"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," said principal investigator and Seoul National University professor Woo-Young Ahn.
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