Alcohol Damages Many Adolescent Brain Functions

Teenage Brain 'A Work in Progress' Vulnerable to Alcohol Damage

The same properties of the adolescent brain that gives it the ability to grow and learn are also the same properties that make it very vulnerable to the damaging effects of alcohol.

Because the adolescent brain continues to grow even into the early adulthood, alcohol abuse during the years while it is still maturing can disrupt the teen's ability to learn life skills that could be used to avoid problems as an adult.

"The adolescent brain is a work in progress," said Peter M. Monti, director of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University. "It is often referred to as 'plastic' because it is built to acquire information, adapt, and learn. Alcohol, however, can disrupt the adolescent brain's ability to learn life skills."

Learning Life Skills

"So, not only can heavy drinking during this time get the adolescent into trouble through behavior such as risk taking or drinking and driving, but it can also make the brain less able to learn important life skills that can help one avoid trouble as an adult," he said.

Monti organized a symposium at the Research Society on Alcoholism meeting in Vancouver, B.C. that focused on alcohol use as a source of brain damage during these critical formative years.

Speakers for the symposium included researchers in neurobiological, behavioral and psychological mechanisms that are related to drinking in both human and animal models to present views from the two areas of investigation.

Damage Alcohol Causes in Adolescent Brains

Topics presented at the symposium included:

  • Adolescent Binge Drinking Causes Life-Long Changes in Brain
  • Functional Neuroimaging Studies in Human Adolescent Drinkers
  • Abnormal Emotional Reactivity as a Risk Factor for Alcoholism
  • Alcohol-Induced Memory Impairments, Including Blackouts, and the Changing Adolescent Brain

    Some of the findings presented were:

    Permanent Damage to Adult Brains

    The neurochemical, cellular, synaptic, and structural organization of the adolescent brain makes it more vulnerable than the adult brain to disruption from activities such as binge drinking. Adolescent rats that were exposed to binge drinking appear to have permanent damage in their adult brains.

    Decreased Ability for Problem-Solving

    Research has identified subtle but important brain changes occurring among adolescents with alcohol use disorder (AUD), resulting in a decreased ability in problem-solving, verbal and non-verbal retrieval, visuospatial skills, and working memory.

    "Alcohol use disorder is a term that encompasses both of the diagnostic categories of alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence," said Monti. "These findings with kids really raise the possibility that as heavy drinking continues, the likelihood of neuronal damage increases, because the brain is no longer is able to compensate for the disruption caused by alcohol."

    Blunted Emotional Reactivity

    The association between antisocial behavior during adolescence and alcoholism may be explained by abnormalities in the frontal limbic system, which appears to cause "blunted emotional reactivity."

    "The 'emotional reactivity' concept is fairly novel in this context," said Monti. "Scientific findings suggest that certain behavioral patterns shown by kids and adolescents with conduct disorder - such as persistent, impulsive and aggressive behavior, lack of adherence to societal norms, etc. - may be a marker for underlying problems in emotional reactivity and related impairment in frontal limbic processes.

    This underlying dysfunction in central processes serving emotional reactivity, seen as poor self-control, impaired decision making, and poor behavioral regulation, may in part explain why kids with conduct problems are especially prone to substance-abuse disorders."

    Blackouts Harm the Brain's 'Plasticity'

    Alcohol-induced memory impairments, such as "blackouts," are particularly common among young drinkers and may be at least in part due to disrupted neural plasticity in the hippocampus, which is centrally involved in the formation of autobiographical memories.

    Childhood Onset Mental Disorders

    Many serious adult mental disorders have their onset during childhood and are risk factors for heavy alcohol involvement, especially attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia spectrum disorders, and bipolar spectrum disorders. The nature and extent of alcohol's effects on the neurodevelopmental and clinical aspects of these disorders should be a priority.

    "I want to emphasize the complexity of this problem, the effects of alcohol on the adolescent brain, and the need to bring 'transdisciplinary and translational science' to bear on it," said Monti. "I don't think the problem can only be solved by people in neuropsychology, or clinical psychology, or neurobiology, or genetics. I think it's going to require a transdisciplinary approach; hopefully we've taken it a step in that direction with this symposium."


    Monti, PM, et al. "Adolescence: Booze, Brains, and Behavior." Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research February 2005

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