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This Is Your Child’s Brain on Alcohol

03/05/2013

In a recent webinar sponsored by the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Prevention of Underage Drinking (ICCPUD), Kenneth Warren, Ph.D., Acting Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), emphasized the relationships between adolescent development and underage drinking. “Relationships”—that is, the plural—is used because, as Dr. Warren noted, alcohol use can affect adolescent brain development and adolescent development often influences underage drinking. NIAAA-supported research looks at both relationships, continually adding new scientific evidence to support efforts to delay the onset of alcohol use until at least the minimum legal drinking age of 21 in the United States. The impact of alcohol on the developing brain is a large, critical, and complex concern that warrants additional attention.

The developing brain on alcohol

According to research, the human brain continues developing until around the age of 25. During adolescence, a lot of growth and major remodeling involving the formation of new connections between nerve cells goes on in the brain. Brain changes that occur during the teen years affect the processes used in planning, decisionmaking, impulse control, voluntary movement, memory, speech, and other crucial functions. Alcohol use during this period can alter brain development and may affect both the brain’s structure and its performance. Underage drinking can lead to cognitive, or learning, impairment. Factors that determine the extent and the severity of harm caused to the developing brain by underage drinking include the age of onset of drinking and the quantity and frequency of consumption.

Some changes that alcohol can cause in the brain of an adolescent can have lifetime consequences. For example, according to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), adults who first used alcohol at age 14 or younger are more than seven times as likely to be classified with alcohol dependence or abuse as adults who had their first drink at age 21 or older. Research also has found associations between chronic heavy drinking among teens and later cognitive deficits and alterations to the brain structure and activity that may be a result of drinking. Studies show that adolescents are more vulnerable to alcohol-related memory problems and may be more prone to brain damage. Besides their increased risk for developing alcohol dependence, underage drinkers appear more likely to exhibit antisocial behavior and experience depression as adults.

Scientific investigation of how alcohol use during adolescence can alter the brain and its ability to function normally is ongoing. Study results published in January 2013 concluded that alcohol use by adolescents may be linked to reductions in brain white matter quality, with greater alcohol consumption by adolescents associated with lesser white matter integrity. The brain’s white matter is involved in cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and motor development in children and adolescents, so damage to white matter tissue can have serious, long-term consequences.

Taking chances is what youth do

As noted by Dr. Warren in his webinar presentation, “Risk-taking is common among many adolescents.” As children transition into adolescence, many of them become curious about things that held little interest for them earlier; for example, some are curious about alcohol. Perhaps because they are still young and have a hard time believing serious harm could happen to them, adolescents can easily fall prey to peer pressure; to messages that make drinking look cool and satisfying and say nothing of its dangers; and to elements in their own experience, family history, or individual makeup that leave them vulnerable. However, Dr. Warren pointed out that this stage in an adolescent’s development may be the opportunity for effective early intervention among those who might try or have tried alcohol. A new tool for early intervention is Alcohol Screening and Brief Intervention for Youth, a guide recently developed by NIAAA in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The underage drinker’s crash helmet

Protecting the developing adolescent brain from short- and long-term injury and damage from underage drinking is not as simple as issuing every vulnerable teen a crash helmet. Instead, communities need to engage in strategic, ongoing prevention efforts. According to France M. Harding, Director of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, “Prevention approaches are most effective when they are comprehensive and data driven; address both individual and environmental factors; recognize and address risk and protective factors in their design; and are age and culturally appropriate.”

Comprehensive prevention efforts to stop underage drinking before it begins have already contributed to very encouraging declines in underage drinking prevalence in recent years. According to the 2011 NSDUH, “Rates of current, binge, and heavy alcohol use among underage persons declined between 2002 and 2011.” Your organization can help sustain this positive trend by implementing evidence-based underage drinking prevention in your community. Your continuing prevention efforts are the underage drinkers’ best crash helmets. And the developing brain you save may belong to someone you love.