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The effects of alcohol on the adolescent brain

Thursday 20 April 2017

Image of teenage legs symbolic of adolescents at a party
Drinking as an adolescent can have lasting impacts on your brain that will last longer than a hangover.

You probably know that drinking alcohol can make you feel dizzy, uninhibited or hungover, but did you know that drinking while you’re a teenager might also impact your health for years to come?

While it’s easy to see your body growing during adolescence, it’s not as obvious that your brain is going through a significant period of growth, too. Throughout your teens and into your twenties, your brain continues to grow and change as the synapses that connect all the different neurons become more complex and efficient.

Research shows that drinking alcohol while your brain is developing might stall or alter this process. This could leave you with potential brain damage that you’ll carry with you throughout the rest of your life.

Difficulties learning new information

One part of the brain that is affected by alcohol is the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a sea horse shaped area deep inside your brain that is responsible for learning and memory.

Alcohol can damage or even destroy the cells that make up the hippocampus, which is why some people experience fuzzy memories or ‘blackouts’ after drinking. Because an adolescent brain is still developing, this damage can be particularly dangerous. Studies have shown that adolescents who drink heavily and often can actually have a smaller hippocampus than their peers, because of the damage done to this part of their brain by alcohol.

Your hippocampus will play a vital role in your brain function during and after adolescence. How well your hippocampus functions will affect how well you can learn and store short term memories, which could play a part in how well you do at school, work, hobbies and when learning new skills like driving a car.

You might not be aware of the effects, but damage done to your hippocampus during adolescence can affect your brain’s potential to learn and remember new things for the rest of your life.

Poor judgement and decision making

We often hear that teenagers can be quick to react, make seemingly poor decisions or act in an irrational way. This is because the pre-frontal cortex of their brain, responsible for things like rational thinking, planning, personality, impulse control and language, is still maturing.  

The pre-frontal cortex is also affected by the consumption of alcohol, which is why people who have been drinking might become irrational, overly confident or less inhibited. When a developing adolescent brain comes into contact with alcohol, not only is the pre-frontal cortex still in the process of maturing, but the alcohol might damage these brain cells.

Pre-frontal cortex damage could affect how well you make judgements as you move into adulthood.

Photo of a room where a party has taken place, with empty bottles, food bowls and confetti on the floor.

So what should we do about it?

For young people, it’s important to learn what alcohol could do to your brain and body in the short and long term. Find out about ways to deal with peer pressure, and if you’re going to drink, make sure you really know what alcohol is, what is in your drinks and what a standard drink of alcohol looks like.

For parents and carers, learn about ways to positively influence your adolescent’s behaviour, how to have a conversation with them about alcohol and how to help them have a good and safe time.

The legal drinking age in Australia is 18, but we know this doesn’t always mean that young Queenslanders will wait until the law says to have a drink. While the average that young people in Australia aged 14 to 24 first tried alcohol has risen slightly over the past few years to 15.7 years, ‘The health of Queenslanders 2016’ report by the Chief Health Officer shows that 17% of Queensland school students aged between 12 and 17 years had consumed alcohol in the previous 7 days.

Research examining exactly how alcohol effects the adolescent brain is still very much in progress. Results so far show that drinking alcohol could do permanent harm to the still developing adolescent brain.

In Australia, there are guidelines to help us drink at low risk levels, though of course the only way to be without risk is to not drink at all. Learn more from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation.

Last updated: 23 August 2017