When energy drinks—beyond the requisite, buzz-giving coffee and soda—first entered the market a couple of decades ago, they seemed pretty miraculous. Although the first contemporary "energy drink" was created in Japan in the 1960s, it wasn't until Red Bull hit the American market in 1997 that a whole plethora of copycats ensued, and gamers, all-night partiers, truck drivers, and athletes united in their newfound need for sweet cans of taurine-laced fizzy drink.
Then, of course, came the backlash. It turns out that adding malt liquor to energy drinks wasn't a great idea, as evidenced by the rash of sketchy incidents surrounding the original formulations of Sparks and Four Loko. (The caffeine, guarana, and taurine have been voluntarily removed from the former since 2008 and the latter since 2010 by their respective companies.) And a couple of years later, there were reports that regular consumption of energy drinks could even lead to early death.
But sales of the drinks have continued to climb steeply over the last decade, even while coffee sales have remained relatively consistent. They're clearly not going anywhere. And as for the people who love them—well, they'll just have to keep in mind the risks. Even if they include traumatic brain injury.
According to a new study published in PLOS ONE, the tie between serious brain injuries and energy drinks isn't just eyebrow-raising. It's astronomical. Researchers found that teenagers who had experienced a traumatic brain injury in the past year were seven times more likely to have consumed five or more energy drinks in the past week than teens who hadn't had such injuries.
About 10,000 students between the ages of 11 and 20 participated in the study, with data collected in the form of a survey. Of the group, about 22 percent reported having suffered from a traumatic brain injury—defined by losing consciousness for at least five minutes or being hospitalized for at least one night.
About half of the TBIs experienced by the teenagers were sports-related. Makes sense: If you need a quick boost of energy before a game or practice, why not chug a readily available beverage made to improve your focus and hype you up? The study showed that of the teens who reported suffering a TBI in the past year, those who played sports were twice as likely to consume energy drinks as those were injured by other means.
Recent TBI sufferers were also more than twice as likely to have mixed booze with energy drinks. Sure, you can take the caffeine out of the Four Loko, but you can't take the Four Loko out of teens' desire to get revved up and drunk at the same time.
Continuing to drink energy drinks after sustaining a TBI can also slow recovery. Dr. Michael Cusimano, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael's Hospital, tells Science Daily: "Energy drinks ... contain high levels of caffeine and change the chemical state of the body, which can prevent people from getting back on track after a TBI… Brain injuries among adolescents are particularly concerning because their brains are still developing."
After suffering from a TBI, many patients experience issues with anxiety and depression, violence, substance abuse, difficulty focusing, and a decline in academic performance.
About eight of the 12 biggest energy drink companies currently admit that they market to minors, according to a report from earlier this year. There are more varieties of energy drinks available now than ever before, as a quick trip to any corner store will reveal. But for teenagers who are throwing back this stuff every day without a second thought, especially before getting into a serious scrimmage, the results might illuminate how TBIs are connected to the drinks.
And in the meantime, some states want to ban the sale of energy drinks outright to people under the age of 18, but warning labels could be the next logical step. After all, as we learned from Four Loko, every guarana-spiked can has its true price.