Objective: Although an association between exposure to alcohol advertising and underage drinking is well documented, the underlying neurobiological contributions to this association remain largely unexplored. From an epidemiological perspective, identifying the neurobiological plausibility of this exposure-outcome association is a crucial step toward establishing marketing as a contributor to youth drinking and informing public policy interventions to decrease this influence.
Method: We conducted a critical review of the literature on neurobiological risk factors and adolescent brain development, social influences on drinking, and neural contributions to reward sensitization and risk taking. By drawing from these separate areas of research, we propose a unified, neurobiological model of alcohol marketing effects on underage drinking.
Results: We discuss and extend the literature to suggest that responses in prefrontal-reward circuitry help establish alcohol advertisements as reward-predictive cues that may reinforce consumption upon exposure. We focus on adolescence as a sensitive window of development during which youth are particularly susceptible to social and reward cues, which are defining characteristics of many alcohol advertisements. As a result, alcohol marketing may promote positive associations early in life that motivate social drinking, and corresponding neurobiological changes may contribute to later patterns of alcohol abuse.
Conclusions: The neurobiological model proposed here, which considers neurodevelopmental risk factors, social influences, and reward sensitization to alcohol cues, suggests that exposure to alcohol marketing could plausibly influence underage drinking by sensitizing prefrontal-reward circuitry.