Alcohol & the Developing Brain

in Addiction
Olivia Pennelle
Published Apr 24, 2020
alcohol and the developing brain

Alcohol is the most commonly misused substance by young people in America, posing great health and safety risks, some of which may be permanent in the developing brain.

According to the National Institute of Health on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), harmful underage drinking is a significant public health problem that impacts the development of the brain and mental well-being, as well as increasing the risk of physical violence, sexual assault, injuries, and death.

The scope of underage drinking

As teens develop, so do their drinking habits. According to NIAAA:

  • By age 15, about 29.8 percent of teens have had at least 1 drink
  • By age 18, about 58.0 percent of teens have had at least 1 drink
  • In 2018, 7.1 million young people ages 12 to 20 reported that they drank alcohol beyond “just a few sips” in the past month

Those figures are even worse for college students: A national survey on drug use and health conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) revealed that percent of students — over 300,000 young adults — meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder (read our College Drinking Fact Sheet here).

Binge drinking & heavy alcohol use among people ages 12 to 20

Binge drinking & heavy alcohol use among people ages 12 to 20

Source: NSDUH, 2016

Young people aged 12 to 20 years old drink 11 percent of the alcohol consumed in the US. Even though they drink less than adults, they consume 90 percent of their alcohol intake while binge drinking. The same survey showed that a staggering 4.3 million young people reported binge drinking in the last month.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Study shows that alcohol is a factor in the death of 4,358 deaths of young people under the age of 21, per year.

Alcohol and the developing brain

Alcohol interferes with brain development. When consumed in adolescence, alcohol can cause significant cognitive and functional problems in adulthood, including alcohol dependence and even alcohol use disorder.

Research shows that the brain undergoes significant changes between childhood and adulthood, and only matures in early adulthood. Healthy brain development is crucial for optimal functioning, and any subtle changes have the potential to impact cognition, emotional, and social functioning.

In particular, the areas of the brain that develop during adolescence include:

  • Cerebral cortex (especially the prefrontal region) — The frontal lobe is associated with executive functions like planning, decision making, self-control, language, and emotional regulation. If the brain is damaged by alcohol, a person may experience difficulty controlling their emotions and making decisions, or they may behave irrationally or violently. Research shows that adolescents who drink heavily have been associated with smaller prefrontal lobes than those their age who do not drink.
  • Limbic system (where the hippocampus is located) — Responsible for memory and learning. Damage to the hippocampus can result in impaired memory, blackouts, and difficulty learning. Studies show that prolonged alcohol use is associated with a 10 percent reduction in size of the hippocampus.
  • Cerebellum — Plays a crucial role in motor and cognitive functions such as thoughts, coordination, and awareness. Alcohol can impact a person’s coordination, or they may become shaky or lose balance.

In addition to the potential damage to the brain, early drinking is also associated with the development of alcohol use disorder in later life. According to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, the prevalence of alcohol misuse and dependence among underage drinkers is high: 0.6 percent in 12- to 14-year-olds, 8.5 percent among 18- to 20-year-olds, and 12.4 percent in 21- to 24-year-olds.

Given the association between drinking and the effects on the brain development in young people, it is clear that there is no safe amount of alcohol consumption and when possible, it should be avoided entirely.

If you or your loved one needs help to overcome an addiction to alcohol and drugs, call us today for a free confidential assessment: 866-358-6446.