Alcohol Hits Teen Brains Hard
A recent report issued by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) contains disturbing news about the dangers of underage drinking. The national report confirms a large amount of earlier research linking alcohol use with damage to the adolescent brain.
Aaron White, Ph.D., assistant research professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center, says the report confirms just how hazardous alcohol is to a young person's brain.
"There's an incredible amount of development taking place in the brain during the teen-age years," he says. "Because of this, it's not surprising that alcohol and perhaps other drugs affect the teenage brain differently than the adult brain."
White, who is also a resident psychologist at the Durham, N.C., Veterans Administration Medical Center, says alcohol affects several different parts of a young person's brain.
"We're just beginning to figure this out," he says. "We've known for a long time that in adults who abuse alcohol, there is damage throughout the brain, including an area called the frontal lobes, which are critically involved in planning, decision-making, impulse control, voluntary motor behavior and language.
"We think there is similar damage taking place in adolescents, but the extent of the damage seems to be greater than in older drinkers. In teen-agers, these regions get hit very hard by alcohol."
White adds, "We also have some evidence that a structure called the hippocampus, which plays a critical role in memory formation, also suffers some damage as a result of alcohol abuse during adolescence. Unfortunately, the changes that are taking place in the hippocampus during the teen-age years make it more sensitive to alcohol."
The NAS report suggests that teen-agers' heavy alcohol use could possibly do long-term, or even permanent, damage, says White.
"If we look at the cognitive abilities of teen-agers who are in drug and alcohol treatment, for at least three weeks after an adolescent's last drink, they show memory impairments and other cognitive deficits."
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