The effect of alcohol on the teenage brain
- Written by: Meghan Betts
During adolescence until your early twenties, the brain undergoes vast changes in its development. Two areas that have the most momentous changes are the prefrontal lobe – which controls complex thought including planning, judgment and decision making – and the hippocampus – where memories are made.
Drinking during adolescence can severely impact the development and healthy function of these two key regions of the brain. Heavy or extended alcohol use has been shown to reduce the size of the hippocampus by 10% compared to non-drinkers. A high concentration of alcohol in the hippocampus can damage the memory center and lead to blackouts. Research suggests that the reason teenagers are far more likely to experience blackouts than adults is because at this age the developing hippocampus is very sensitive to damage.
Marc A. Schuckit who co-authored a study on teenage drinking and blackouts stated in a press release that “People don’t understand how dangerous blackouts are” and suggests that the ‘rite of passage’ drinking culture present at that age leads to misconceptions that “blackouts, very bad hangovers, and outrageous behaviour at parties are very funny”. Drinking at this age is widely tolerated, and even encouraged in some situations. But the effect of drinking on an adult brain is vastly different to the effect on a teenage brain and increased understanding and consideration of the consequences is needed.
As well as dangerous damage to the hippocampus, alcohol can also cause the immature development of the prefrontal lobe, resulting in poor judgement, a lack of consideration for consequences, impulsiveness, increased risk taking and miscommunication. This in turn can lead to accidental injuries which are one of the leading causes of death amongst teenagers.
In light of the recent evidence, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) concludes that alcohol should not be consumed below the age of 18, with children under the age of 15 at the greatest risk. Between the ages of 15 and 17 it is advised that efforts are made to delay the drinking of alcohol for as long as possible.
However a new study has suggested that children who are introduced to alcohol by their parents before the age of 18 are less likely to begin binge-drinking in the following years compared to children who were given alcohol by their peers, although Professor Richard Mattick who led the study still advises that teenagers should “delay drinking as long as possible” in order to reduce harm due to the continuing brain development.
Unless we, as a society, change our view on teenage alcohol consumption it will be a difficult task to prevent teenagers drinking before they turn 18. Whether it is better to continue to try and delay drinking until as late as possible or instead choose to introduce your children to alcohol before they turn 18 is essentially a double-edged sword, and much more research is required before we have any hope of finding a solution to this problem.