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Teenagers and Alcohol: Under the Influence

When vulnerable teenage brains are exposed to the effects of extreme alcohol consumption, the outcome may be bleak.

By Anita Slomski // Fall 2010
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In a 1982 experiment by the National Institutes of Health, boys ages 8 to 15 drank ethanol mixed with soda while their blood alcohol levels and motor impairment were monitored. Surprisingly, the kids demonstrated few effects after drinking an amount that would have an adult slurring words or losing balance.

“The immature brain of an adolescent responds differently to alcohol than does the brain of an adult and is less sensitive to some of the cues that normally serve to limit drinking,” says Linda P. Spear, distinguished professor of psychology at Binghamton University in upstate New York. In an ongoing study, Spear and her colleagues have had student research associates ask 100 or so young patrons leaving popular bar areas to take a Breathalyzer test, which estimates blood alcohol levels, and other tests gauging motor and cognitive impairment. “Eighty milligrams per deciliter of alcohol in your blood counts as impaired driving in most states,” she says. “But we are finding young people with 300 who are still walking.”

Though the teenage brain may be less sensitive to alcohol’s short-term effects, emerging research suggests that it may be more vulnerable to permanent damage. “The brain regions that are undergoing the most rapid changes in adolescence are the most susceptible to being altered by drugs, alcohol and stress,” says Spear. Research has shown that people who drink excessively in adolescence have cognitive and memory deficits by the time they are in their twenties, and their brains have smaller amygdalae and less gray matter in the hippocampus.

Longitudinal studies recently launched by psychiatry professor Susan Tapert of the University of California, San Diego, follow kids before they start drinking and monitor changes in their brains and cognitive functions, and the early results are troubling. “Teens who started drinking heavily showed downhill performances on several cognitive tasks,” says Tapert. Other studies have shown that the earlier a teen starts drinking, the more likely addiction will follow.

“Adolescence may provide a special opportunity to build the brain that you will carry into adulthood,” says Spear. “I don’t think most kids want to maximize their propensity to drink a lot and become alcoholics.”

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The Teenage Brain

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Adolescence is the brain’s boom time, a period of rapid development, specialization—and a heedless propensity for excess.

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