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
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
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
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
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