Health Risks   

The Teen Brain & Developing Body

A Florida campaign (, describes it this way.  "The teen brain is like a fast car with a very poor brake system! It's capable of doing and learning things really quickly, but the parts that control decision making and judgment are not completely developed.  Ever wonder why you have to tell them to clean their rooms a dozen times or why their moods can swing so unexpectedly? Much of this has to do with their rapidly developing brains."

What effect does drinking have on my child's brain and body? New imaging machines, such as MRIs and PET scans, have given scientists exciting views into the development of the human brain.  While we once thought the brain was fully developed at birth, scientists now know that the child's brain continues developing into the mid-2o's.  Because teens brains and bodies are still growing, drinking alcohol can have many serious and long-lasting negative consequences, including impairment of healthy development.  For more information on just how unhealthy underage  drinking is for your child, click this interactive link,which follows the path of alcohol through the body and explains its effects on the organs.

What does the research say? Researchers at major medical schools across the U.S. used various imaging techniques to measure brain impairment in teen drinkers compared with non-drinking teens. At the University of California - San Diego, researchers invited local high school students (non-drinkers and drinkers) to have an MRI done on their brains. They gave the volunteers (who were all sober at the time) identical thinking tests which appeared on an overhead screen during the MRI. Teens who admitted to heavy drinking showed much less brain activity (visible by the absence of red color) than the non-drinkers.

Simply put, underage drinking can hinder a teen's brain-wiring development, damaging the impulse control and good judgment area of the brain, and harming the learning and memory parts of the brain. Alcohol damage can cause young people to: develop social problems, use poor judgment, get into trouble, do poorly in school, and experience failure in achieving life-long goals.  While the damage may not show up right away, when the person has to solve some complex relationship problems or perform complex higher-level math problems, performing those mental tasks may be harder for him or her.

AMA Supports Findings

If a teen uses alcohol before his or her brain is fully developed, it can keep the good judgment and impulse-control part of the brain from properly developing or "wiring." It can also damage the memory and learning areas of the brain; and it greatly increases the risk of alcohol addiction. Underage drinking also increases the risk of mental illness, and contributes to other anti-social behavior. More teens die as a result of alcohol use than all other illegal drugs combined (Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, 2002).

As a result of current research, the American Medical Association issued the following findings:
  • The brain goes through dynamic change during adolescence [ages 12-21] and alcohol can seriously damage long- and short-term growth processes.  Frontal lobe development and the refinement of pathways and connections, continue until age 16 and a high rate of energy is used as the brain matures until age 20.
  • Short-term or moderate drinking impairs learning and memory far more in youth than adults.  Adolescents need only drink half as much to suffer the same negative effects.
  • Two brain areas that are negatively affected by underage alcohol use are the prefrontal cortex (the area right behind the forehead) and the hippocampus (deep inside the brain).  The prefrontal area [responsible for good judgment, planning, decision making and impulse control] undergoes the most change during adolescence. Researchers found that adolescent drinking could cause severe changes in this area, which plays an important role in forming adult personality and behavior. Damage from alcohol at this time can be long-term and irreversible. 
  • The hippocampus [involved in learning and memory] suffers from the worst alcohol-related brain damage in teens. Those who had been drinking more and for longer had significantly smaller hippocampus (10 percent). In addition, short-term or moderate drinking impairs learning and memory far more in youth than adults. Frequent drinkers may never be able to catch up in adulthood, since alcohol inhibits systems crucial for storing new information.

 Additional Resources   
      Listen below to a report from NPR on teen drinking.
    The Coalition for Alcohol & Drug Free Teenagers of Chapel Hill & Carrboro
    Telephone: 919-942-3300
    Underage Drinking Reporting Tip Line: 888-888-TIPS

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