Parent Power

the power to prevent underage alcohol use

Brain Impairment

Research reveals brain impairment in teen drinkers

These images show functional activity levels in the brain of a healthy 15-year-old male nondrinker (left), and that of a 15-year-old male heavy drinker (right).

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. One, Dr. Susan Tapert, at the University of California - San Diego invited local high school students (non-drinkers and drinkers) to have an MRI done on their brains. She 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.

More of Dr. Tapert's teen brain scans can be seen in two videos: "Don't Drain Your Brain" and "Brain Scans" from Human Relations Media. Your local library or school district substance abuse specialist will likely have a copy of the videos for viewing.

These images show functional activity levels in the brain of a healthy 15-year-old male nondrinker (left), and that of a 15-year-old male heavy drinker (right).

Dr. Daniel Amen, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist in Southern California, uses SPECT scans to image and view the brain. These SPECT images show functional activity levels in the brain of a healthy non-drinker (left), and that of a sober 21-year-old with a four-year history of heavy alcohol use (right). The "holes" indicate areas of reduced brain activity.

More of Dr. Amen's brain scans can be seen in "The Truth About Alcohol" from AIMS Multimedia. Your local library or school district substance abuse specialist should have, or can obtain, a copy for your viewing.

Two brain areas negatively affected by underage alcohol use

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). These quotes are from the American Medical Association Fact Sheet

image of head showing prefontal area of 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."

 

image of head showing hippocampus area of brain

"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 hippocampi (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."

Alcohol damage can cause young people to exhibit the following behaviors:

  • develop social problems, such as fighting and lack of participation in youth activities; have poor judgment;
  • get into trouble; struggle in school such as having higher absences and having poor or failing grades;
  • develop legal problems, such as arrest for driving or physically hurting someone while drunk;
  • have physical problems, such as hangovers or illnesses;
  • experience failure in achieving life-long goals.

Youth who drink alcohol are more likely to experience:

  • unwanted, unplanned, and unprotected sexual activity;
  • disruption of normal growth and sexual development;
  • physical and sexual assault;
  • higher risk for suicide and homicide;
  • alcohol related car crash and other unintentional injuries such as burns, falls, and drowning;
  • memory problems;
  • abuse of other drugs;
  • death from alcohol poisoning.

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, have 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.

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