This is your adolescent brain on alcohol

  • The teen years of 15-16 are a time of both sensitive brain development and alcohol experimentation.
  • Heavy drinking during this time can cause damage to thinking abilities.
  • One study has found that information recall is the function most impacted by heavy drinking.
  • It is unclear how much of this damage can be reversed.
Numerous studies have documented what is called neuropsychological deficits -- brain damage -- in adult heavy drinkers. Only recently have researchers begun to investigate the potentially damaging influence of alcohol on adolescent neurological development and cognitive functioning. Findings recently published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research are alarming: alcohol-dependent teenagers may be exposing their brains to the disruptive effects of ethanol at the very time that their brains are at critical phases in development.

"We chose to look at adolescents of 15, 16 years of age because that is a relatively circumscribed period of brain development," said Susan F. Tapert, project scientist and research fellow at the University of California, San Diego and one of the study's lead authors. "Certain brain developments, such as the refinement of neural connections, are completed by about age 16. Developments in the frontal lobes - parts of the brain that are important in judgement, planning and problem solving - continue until about age 16. This potentially important time for brain development is also a time when some teens start drinking quite a bit."

It can be misleading to call alcohol a "gateway drug" for youth simply because it often precedes the use of illicit drugs. As reported in the July 1997 edition of Alcohol Alert, a survey of 4,390 high school seniors found that approximately 80 percent reported getting drunk, binge drinking, or drinking and driving within the preceding year. The national Monitoring the Future Study, 1975-1997 found that more than 34 percent of hig

Contact: Sandra A. Brown, Ph.D.
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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