Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

How Alcohol Affects a Teen’s Developing Brain

Prevention efforts across the country have been in full force for decades to promote the knowledge that drinking and driving is deadly. Teenagers, specifically, have been targeted with this campaign in an effort to decrease the number of teen lives lost to drunk driving accidents.

But is alcohol use during the teen years any more damaging than drinking during the adult years? The evidence says “yes.” The reason is the unique developmental period that occurs in the brain during the teen years and how alcohol disrupts these fundamental processes.

The Teen Years

Teenagers are not just “young adults” but in a stage of development that is unique. Their brains are more developed than a child’s but nowhere near where they will be in adulthood. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that the years between 12 and 18 are marked by the following:

  • More frequent peer interactions without the guidance or direct supervision of adults
  • More sophisticated interactions with peers and adults (e.g., getting a job, interacting with law enforcement, developing romantic relationships, etc.)
  • Experiencing new situations
  • Responding to stimuli with new behaviors that are experimental to them
  • Increasingly taking more risks

Teen behavior, as a result of the rate and frequency of these new experiences and their need to synthesize and process them quickly, can be erratic. Add alcohol to this mix and it can have disastrous results.

Alcohol’s Effect on the Brain

The New York Times reports that there are numerous studies that support the fact that alcohol not only inhibits the teen brain while under the influence of the substance but can also cause long-term issues that will affect the teen well into adulthood. Among these studies findings are the following:

  • Teen brains are more significantly harmed by alcohol ingestion than the brains of adults.
  • Short-term alcohol abuse (less than the years of heavy drinking once thought necessary to cause harm) has been shown to cause damage to brain tissue and white matter.
  • Drinking during the teen years may undermine the neurological functions that would have protected them from the development of alcoholism had they first started drinking when older.
  • One extensive study found that 47 percent of those who began drinking before the age of 14 would develop a dependency upon the substance at some point in their lives. Comparatively, only 9 percent of those who waited to start drinking until they were 21 went on to develop an alcohol addiction – even when a genetic predisposition to the disorder was taken into account.
  • Another study found significant cellular damage to the hippocampus and forebrain in adolescent rats when these subjects were exposed to binge doses of alcohol.
  • Other studies found that teens with an alcohol use disorder routinely underperformed on tests of focus and attention span, spatial skills, verbal memory, and nonverbal memory.

Teen Drinking and Brain Damage

National Public Radio (NPR) reports that binge drinking in teens can lead to irreversible brain damage. Nerve tissue in the brain is damaged when a teenager drinks alcohol in large amounts and this damage can linger long after the alcohol wears off. Repeat the behavior frequently, and this damage adds up and can ultimately amount to what may be an untreatable loss of the ability to manage basic cognitive skills.

Not Worth the Risk

“Normal experimentation” with drugs and alcohol during the high school years is a myth. If your son is drinking, help him stop today. Call the phone number above to learn more about our unique rehabilitation program. At Muir Wood, we’re here to help you and your family heal.

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