Alcohol and the Teen Brain

A person’s brain does not stop developing until his or her early to mid-20s. During adolescence the brain goes through dramatic and dynamic changes. Adding alcohol to the mix is a recipe for disaster.

Research tells us: “frontal lobe development and the refinement of pathways and connections continue into the mid-20’s.” What that means is; the frontal lobe provides a person with the ability to recognize consequences of actions and to understand the difference and choices between good and bad. The frontal lobe overrides unacceptable responses to stimuli and retains emotional memory which it uses to determine how to develop to social norms and acceptable behavior. It is far easier to damage the frontal lobe while it is still developing.

The pathways and connections in the brain, using neurochemicals, transmit signals for every action, emotion, and decision one makes. Alcohol intake increases or decreases neurochemicals in the brain. This abnormal fluctuation affects everything from; muscle control to speech to stress/anxiety levels to moods &sense of well being and to the ability to feel pain and more.

Damage from alcohol during adolescence can be long-term and irreversible. Short-term or moderate drinking can impair learning and memory far more in youth than in adults. Adolescents need only drink half as much as adults to suffer the same negative effects.

Here are some quick facts about alcohol use and the developing brain:

Anything that interferes with how the brain operates during developmental periods can change the course of a person's mental, emotional, cognitive, and social development - and alter his or her opportunities for success.

Random damage: Most drugs are predictable. They have specific receptors in the brain they will use, so the impact on the function in specific regions of the brain can be predicted. Alcohol, however, doesn't have a specific receptor in the brain. It selects receptors at random, acting on one receptor in one part of the brain and on a different one in another part of the brain. It is also random in its behavior in different brains, meaning it affects people differently.

Off/On: Alcohol plugs into the brain's massive network of switches that activate and deactivate neural functioning and turns brain cells on or off. No other drug turns brain cells on and off at the rate alcohol does.

Interceptor. Alcohol seeps directly into neurons to prevent the messages that a neuron receives from being translated into instructions inside the cell.

Morphing: Alcohol combines with lipids (fat molecules) that form channels in the surfaces of brain cell membranes, temporarily changing their structure and function.

Thief. Alcohol reduces the level of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is known as the brain's peacekeeper, assisting in learning and problem solving and it enables our drive to live in harmony. It is connected to cells in every part of the brain – the only neurotransmitter that is. If not impeded, the brain receives gentle, rhythmic pulses of serotonin. One of its most important roles is to act as a brake on impulses for too much or too little can affect cognitive and emotional functioning. This why drinking teens often engage in foolish, irresponsible and dangerous activities.

Global Havoc. Alcohol affects most of the brain, compromising memory, abstract thinking, problem solving, attention and concentration. It also alters motivation, emotions, awareness, thinking, movement, breathing, consciousness and more.

Additional information can be found at: www.ama-assn.org