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Alcohol and Teenage Brain Development

The teenage years are a time of great excitement and experimentation. Teenagers are eager to step into the “adult” world and as a result, experiment with drugs and alcohol. According to the U.S Surgeon General, about 5000 kids under 21 die every year because of alcohol-related injuries caused by underage drinking. Adolescence should be a healthy, wholesome stage of life and not marked by injuries and illnesses caused by alcohol and substance abuse. Learn more about adolescence, the development of the brain and substance use during this phase, as well as how substance use can affect adolescents in the long-term.

Adolescence Defined

Adolescence is essentially the period between 10-19 years of age and marked by many physical, emotional and sexual changes. According to David Geldard in Counselling Adolescents: The Proactive Approach, adolescence is “the period of human development during which a young person must move from dependency to independence, autonomy and maturity.”

Adolescent Brain Development

While in the past, it was believed that a large portion of brain development takes place by the age of six, recent studies indicate the brain continues to develop until the teenage years.

  • The Physicians for Human Rights Campaign for Health and Justice for Youth, adolescent behavior is highly influenced by the limbic system and amygdala regions of the brain, which are linked to impulsive and aggressive behavior.
  • Frontline suggests that a significant amount of brain development occurs around adolescence.
  • Society for Neuroscience indicates that teenagers do not have full cognitive control over high-risk behaviors.
  • National Institute of Mental Health, the latest MRI studies are helping to understand how a teenage brain continues to develop and increase in gray matter.

Adolescence and Substance Use

As adolescence is a time of experimentation and rebellion against adults and authority, substance abuse becomes one way of identifying with peers and rejecting adult supervision. According to The Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research ( CeASAR), substance abuse among adolescents, ” is associated with the three leading causes of death – motor vehicle crashes and other unintentional injuries, homicides and suicides.”

  • Alcohol Screening indicates that teenagers who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become alcoholics than those who begin at age 21.
  • National Institute of Drug Abuse outlines risk factors for drug abuse.
  • The National Child Traumatic Stress Network data indicates, “one in five American adolescents is engaged in maladaptive or dangerous use of alcohol or drugs.”
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides statistics on the number of teenagers using alcohol and other drugs.

How Alcohol Affects Adolescence Differently

Since adolescents differ from adults alcohol tends to affect them differently as well. A publication by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism demonstrates that alcohol abuse in adolescence has considerable impact on the neural and endocrine development.

  • Institute of Alcohol Studies UK, describes the harmful outcomes of alcohol abuse.
  • Center for Disease and Control, alcohol use by youth increases risk of suicides.
  • Why21 describes how alcohol affects behavior and brain function differently in adolescents.
  • Arbias describes how even moderate drinking affects brain development far more in youth than in adults.

Long Term Effects on Adolescents

Due to the level of development of an adolescent’s brain, alcohol has far-reaching effects on the brain of a teenager, affecting his/her life as an adult.

Further Reading