Alcohol and the Adolescent Brain

Underage drinking is a serious problem, not only in the eyes of the law but also for the medical development of the human brain. The adolescent brain does not fully mature until a man or woman reaches the age of 24. Due to this, the adolescent brain is more susceptible to making poor judgment choices, impulse decisions, and has an inability to comprehend consequences of these actions. Younger people also have a lower sensitivity to the affects of alcohol, which in most cases causes them to indulge in more quantities. Excess use of alcohol can lead to many serious problems with brain development.

Maturation of The Brain

Since the brain doesn’t reach full maturation until the mid-20s, alcohol consumption can have a negative impact on both structural and functional development of the brain. There are three brain structures that mature during adolescence and which can be most greatly impacted by alcohol consumption. The first of these structures is called the nucleus accumbens. It is the pleasure center of the brain in which euphoria and other desirable feelings can develop as a result of alcohol intake. This is also the area of the brain that determines how much effort a certain task is worth based on the quality of the reward return. In the adolescent brain, the nucleus accumbens gears towards low effort and high excitement. This makes adolescents more susceptible to substance use and abuse because the effort in taking alcohol is low, yet can yield highly excitable results.

Another area of the maturing brain that is impacted by alcohol consumption is the amygdala. This area of the brain controls the emotional responses to both favorable and unfavorable stimulus. In the adolescent brain, the amygdala is not mature enough to yield controlled responses, especially when alcohol is involved. Responses are more explosive and irrational.

The final area of the brain to note is the prefrontal cortex. In this area of the brain, judgment, impulse control, planning, complex information processing, and consequence prediction all occur. It is an important area involved in rational decision-making, particularly in value judgment and responsibility. In the adolescent brain, judgment is poor and behavior is impulsive. Consuming alcohol only exacerbates the issue.

Brain Functions Most Affected by Alcohol

Alcohol is a depressant drug targeting the central nervous system. Many often confuse it as a stimulant because it initially lowers inhibitions, causing people to do things they may not otherwise do. In adolescents, the side effects of alcohol consumption can have a greater and more drastic impact. The brain functions most commonly affected are discussed below.

As mentioned, the central nervous system is greatly impacted by alcohol consumption. The central nervous system is responsible for allowing the brain and the rest of the body to work together. When a person has an idea, the central nervous system relays that idea from the brain to the body part needed to execute the task. When alcohol affects the central nervous system, all of the signals that work to make the body function slow down, thus impacting speech, thoughts and movement.

The cerebral cortex is the area of the brain that processes information obtained from a person’s senses. When alcohol is consumed, the cerebral cortex experiences a slow down in processing. The cerebellum is another area of the brain that deals with awareness, coordination, and thoughts. When the cerebellum meets alcohol, a person can experience problems with balance, hand-eye coordination, or shaky hands.

The frontal lobes of the brain assist with idea formation, planning, self-control, and decision-making. When alcohol mixes with the frontal lobes, a person’s decision making gets completely thrown off. Under the influence of alcohol people may become over-emotional, letting urges make decisions for them. Often times they act without thinking, and can even become violent.

Memories are made in the hippocampus. Alcohol and the hippocampus do not mix well. In most cases alcohol consumption will allow a person to forget new information, even after just one or two drinks. Binge drinking or drinking in excess can cause a person to completely blackout, which means that many moments or even whole events from the entire previous night can be forgotten.

The hypothalamus is one of the control centers of the body’s internal maintenance. Alcohol distresses the hypothalamus, causing a lapse in the quality of its work. Therefore, when a person consumes alcohol, much of its bodily housekeeping falls into disarray. Alcohol consumption causes certain regulatory functions such as blood pressure, thirst, hunger and the need to urinate to increase. Meanwhile, the body temperature and heart rate experience a decrease.

The medulla is the area of the brain that is in charge of the body’s automatic functions. The medulla controls such things as heartbeat or breathing, things a person doesn’t knowingly control. Body temperature maintenance is also controlled by the medulla, to ensure that the body is the appropriate healthy temperature. When a person consumes alcohol, the body temperature cools down. When alcohol is consumed in excess in a cold environment, a person can experience hypothermia.

Long Term Effects

Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to long-term damage from alcohol consumption because the brain is still developing and forming. As alcohol gets into the brain while it is developing, damaging effects can occur, causing a disruption in the normal development of the brain. Teenagers that binge drink are more susceptible to problems with memory, as well as with brain functions impacting ability to learn. Drinking too much for too long can cause brain cells to die. Alcohol consumption over a long period of time can also have a lasting impact on the frontal lobes of the brain. Similarly, if the hippocampus experiences damage from too much alcohol a person may lose his/her ability to learn or hold on to information.


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By Ted Burgess