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When Teens Drink Alcohol- New Research Findings on Long-Term Effects


We all know that teenage drinking can lead to drunken driving, serious car accidents, bad decision-making, fighting and other unpleasant and sometimes dangerous behavior. But increasingly, research is showing that alcohol is more detrimental to the developing brains of teenagers than it is to the brains of adults.

Some of the research indicates, alarmingly, that early drinking may decrease the brain's ability to protect a person from alcoholism. A survey of 43,093 adults in America, published in the Archives of Pediatric Medicine this summer, showed that 47 percent of the people who began drinking alcohol before they were 14 became dependent on alcohol at some point in their lives. But only 9 percent of the people who waited until they were 21 to start drinking ever became dependent on alcohol.

Other findings from studies conducted in the past eight years have shown that teenagers who are alcoholics:

  • Do poorly on tests of verbal and nonverbal memory
  • Have difficulty focusing their attention
  • Perform poorly in exercises requiring spatial skills, such as reading a map

    Alcohol damages two key areas of the brain

    Researchers have learned that alcohol affects the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a key role in learning and memory. In studies of laboratory rats, alcohol slowed down the ability of cells in the hippocampus to make important connections among each other. These connections are what enable us to form new memories. Even more importantly, these connections were slowed down much more effectively in adolescent rats than in adult rats. And the adolescent rats under the influence of alcohol performed much more poorly in tests of learning and remembering than adult rats did.

    Many experts now believe that this disconnection among cells is likely to be the cause of alcohol "blackouts," which occur when someone who's been drinking heavily has no memory of some of the things that happened during the period of drunkenness, even though that person didn't lose consciousness. And results are showing that blackouts are more common among teenagers than previously thought.

    Additionally, it appears that alcohol damages the frontal areas of the brain just at the time when adolescents' brains are developing the ability to control impulsive actions and to think about the consequences of those actions. It's this disruption in development that researchers believe is likely to make the progression to alcohol addiction easier. The built-in barrier that a responsible adult may have to becoming drunk time after time may not develop in a teenager who consumes too much alcohol.

    Is there any good news about teens and alcohol consumption?

    As long as teens continue to drink alcohol, even small amounts, there's not really any good news about the way alcohol can affect their brain development. But the good news is that teenagers who are able to stop drinking may discover that their brains can bounce back. Memory may improve. Cognitive function may increase.

    A disruption in brain development is never good, however. Teens who do stop drinking and see an improvement in memory, ability to focus, and other skills may still never know whether they are reaching their full potential or whether the alcohol has limited their brain function permanently.

    Obviously, it's better not to start drinking in the teen years at all. But if the drinking has already started, the key is to get the teen to stop. If you have a teenager who has begun to drink alcohol, talk with your family doctor, pediatrician, mental health counselor, social worker or other professional you trust to determine the best way to approach this problem. The sooner the better.

    Archives of Pediatric Medicine, 3 July 2006
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