Alcohol and Brain Development Kristen DiPaolo | CWK Network
"The fact that our brains could stop developing is kinda scary."
- Stephanie Sturges, 18

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Can drinking stop the teenage brain from growing? 18-year-old Elisha Schuett says, “That wouldn’t surprise me at all if it affects your brain. I mean it’s a drug just like any other drug. It’s a drug.”

Duke University researchers scanned the brains of teens recovering from drinking problems. They found that the teens who drank a lot had a smaller prefrontal cortex than those who did not. 20-year-old Harry Schmidt says, “It’s really frightening. It makes me wish I hadn’t started drinking already, definitely.” 18-year-old Stephanie Sturges says, “The fact that our brains could stop developing is kinda scary.”

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for judgment—planning ahead---critical thinking. Dr. Michael Fishman, the director of the adult addiction medicine program at Ridgeview Institute in metro-Atlanta says, “If you have a prefrontal cortex that does not mature as it’s supposed to as an adolescent and young adult, it could possibly impede many different areas of our lives. We could become more impulsive, have poor decision-making, our judgment could be off, and we might not be able to learn as well as other people.”

And--- the research suggests--- the damage is permanent. Dr. Fishman says, “You only have so much time for the brain to mature, and the brain is not as forgiving of an organ as the liver that might regenerate after damage.”

He says parents should explain that the brain does not fully mature until age 25---and that binge drinking----even once a month---may cause damage. Dr. Fishman says, “This really isn’t even a scare tactic. It just is what it is, and it’s very, very damaging.”

18-year-old Elisha Schuett says, “If you start young it’s going to plague you the rest of your life.” 19-year-old Kim Filipek says, “I’ve been in college, this is my second year. I’ve gone to one party. I don’t (drink) and partially because I know the effects that it has and it’s just not worth it.”

Researchers have long known that adult alcoholics have smaller brains. This is the first study to show that teens---with much shorter drinking histories---also have smaller brain measurements.
By Larry Eldridge
CWK Network, Inc.

Alcohol is the most commonly used drug among teens. Seventy-one percent of eighth graders and 95 percent of high school seniors say that it would be easy to get alcohol if they wanted some. Although many youngsters try alcohol (52 percent of eighth-graders and 80 percent of high school seniors), most don’t drink regularly and disapprove of heavy drinking.

Research shows that adolescents may be more vulnerable to brain damage from excessive drinking than older drinkers. Alcohol impairs brain activity in the receptors responsible for memory and learning, and young people who binge drink could be facing serious brain damage today and increased memory loss in years to come. If one begins drinking at an early age, he/she is more likely to face alcohol addiction. Consider the following …

  • Imaging studies have revealed a connection between heavy drinking and physical brain damage.
  • Neither chronic liver disease nor alcohol-induced dementia, the most common symptoms of severe alcoholism, need be present for alcohol-induced, physical brain damage to occur.
  • Alcohol-induced brain damage usually includes extensive shrinkage in the cortex of the frontal lobe, which is the site of higher intellectual functions.
  • Shrinkage has also been observed in deeper brain regions, including the cerebellum, which helps regulate coordination and balance, and brain structures associated with memory.
  • Alcohol abstinence has shown positive results. Even three to four weeks without alcohol can reverse effects on memory loss and problem-solving skills.
By Larry Eldridge
CWK Network, Inc.

As a parent, it is extremely important to know the warning signs of alcoholism. The following list was created by the American Academy for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry:

  • Physical – fatigue, repeated health complaints, red and glazed eyes, a lasting cough
  • Emotional – personality change, sudden mood changes, irritability, irresponsible behavior, low self-esteem, poor judgment, depression, a general lack of interest
  • Family – starting arguments, breaking rules, withdrawing from the family
  • School – decreased interest, negative attitude, drop in grades, many absences, truancy, discipline problems
  • Social – problems with the law, changes to less conventional styles in dress and music, new friends who are less interested in standard home and school activities

Adolescents have a better chance of recovery from alcohol-related damage because they have greater powers of recuperation. If you suspect your child has alcohol-related brain damage, it is imperative to have him or her assessed by a medical doctor or psychologist. Treatment depends on the individual and the type of brain damage sustained. People with impaired brain function can be helped. Often it is necessary to reduce the demands placed on the patient. Also, a predictable routine covering all daily activities can help. Consider the following points when easing your child’s routine …

  • Simplify information. Present one idea at a time.
  • Tackle one problem at a time.
  • Allow your child to progress at his or her own pace.
  • Minimize distractions.
  • Avoid stressful situations.
  • Structure a schedule with frequent breaks and rest periods.
  • Consider joining an alcoholism support group.

Even if your child is not exhibiting any of the warning signs above, consider establishing the following strategies to reduce the risk of teen drinking in the future:

  • Establish a loving, trusting relationship with your child.
  • Make it easy for your teen to talk honestly with you.
  • Talk with your child about the facts regarding alcohol, reasons not to drink and ways to avoid drinking in difficult situations.
  • Keep tabs on your teen’s activities, and join with other parents in making common policies about teen alcohol use.
  • Develop family rules about teen drinking and establish consequences.
  • Set a good example regarding your own alcohol use and your response to teen drinking.
  • Encourage your child to develop healthy friendships and fun alternatives to drinking.
  • Know whether your child is at high risk for a drinking problem. If so, take steps to lessen the risk.
  • Know the warning signs of a teen drinking problem and act promptly to get help for your child.
  • Believe in your own power to help your child.

Alcoholism Home Page
Better Health Channel
National Youth Violence Prevention Center
Psychological A ssessment R esearch and T reatment S ervices
American Academy for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency
WebMD Health
Alcohol Abuse Prevention: Your Life, Your Choice!