Alcohol Effects on the Teenage Brain

I am worried that my daughter has started drinking with her friends and am scared to death about what might happen. My daughter tells me that some of the parents at her school are hosting parties so that they can keep the kids "safe" and away from driving. That seems crazy to me. Any advice on what to do?

Susana, Colorado


We are learning more and more about alcohol effects on young brains. This gives us more information to share with teens themselves and more scientific reasons to set clear limits and consequences around underage drinking. It also helps make clear why hosting drinking parties doesn't do teens any favors!

Alcohol and the brain

Adults issue all kinds of warnings to discourage underage drinking. Here are just a few:

"If you drink that beer you will kill your brain cells!"

"You may as well ram your head into a brick wall, your brain will never be the same again!"

"You are not allowed to drink because I told you so!"

Lots of these warning are based on the belief that the human brain has a finite number of brain cells and once damaged or killed they are gone for life. We know now that our brains can regenerate cells throughout our lives and that the number of brain cells you have is not nearly as important as how you fire and wire the ones that you have.

That doesn't let young brains off the hook though. The latest research tells us that alcohol effects are even worse than we thought.

By now nearly everyone knows that pregnant women should not drink. This is because there is no greater period of sensitivity than when the brain is growing and developing during gestation. The adolescent brain is also in the middle of an intense developmental stage and is incredibly sensitive to foreign substances.

So what does alcohol do to the teen brain during this "window of sensitivity?"

The teenage brain is over sensitive to the damage...

  • Mood: Alcohol stimulates the release of dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter). When you chronically use foreign substances to trigger dopamine surges, the body stops producing the levels that it normally needs. This means you feel worse and worse without that substance. A crucial task of the adolescent body is to figure out how much of each chemical is needed. Alcohol throws a wrench in this process.
  • Memory: Heavy alcohol interferes with the decoding of new memories. More specifically, alcohol interferes with a neurotransmitter called glutamate. When neurons fire together, glutamate helps them wire together, making it more likely to fire together in the future. Because the teenage brain is furiously firing and wiring, glutamate is even more crucial in an adolescent brain than in an adult brain. This is why adolescents who drink a lot of alcohol end up having more memory and learning impairment than adults who drink the same amount.

...and under sensitive to the warning signs.

  • Delayed warning signs: For reasons we still don't entirely understand, the sedation effects of alcohol and impairment of motor coordination are delayed in the teen brain. This means that young people don't experience the warning signals that go off in the adult brain - tiredness, mumbling, stumbling, slurring words - until they drink significantly more alcohol.

A risky over-under combination

Teens who brag they can "hold their liquor" are just advertising that they have growing brains. It does not mean they are immune to the damage. To sum it up: because of the adolescent brain's window of sensitivity the negative effects of alcohol, nicotine, and other drugs on the adolescent brain is faster, more severe, and occurs with less warning than in an adult brain.

Early start, later dependence

There is one more piece of bad news for teen drinkers. The earlier a young person starts to drink, the higher the probability that he or she will have alcohol dependency as an adult. This makes sense when you consider that the teenage brain is under construction. During this window of sensitivity, the brain likely decides through the firing and wiring process that it needs alcohol.

Adults who are hosting parties for underage drinkers should take another look at the science and rethink the messages they are sending teenagers in their community.

"My parents would kill me"

The research is clear that adults matter. Parents matter. Many adults think that their talks, warnings, and rules are nothing against the tidal wave of peer pressure, media advertising, and hollywood glamorization washing over their kids. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Study after study shows that involved parents with clear rules and consequences around drinking is the most important protective factor for teens.

According to a Columbia University study, teenagers with "hands-on" parents are four times less likely to become involved in smoking, drinking or drug use than kids who don't have hands-on parents. A large national survey asked kids who had successfully avoided trouble what made a difference. The kids said something like this: "If I ever got caught drinking or smoking, my parents would kill me." That's kid speak for parents who care enough to set clear limits and consequences.

What does being a hands-on parent look like? It doesn't mean threatening to kill your teen if you find they've been drinking. It does mean asking questions, having consistent conversations, and making your expectations and values clear. Here are some parent tips to get you started.



Dr. Dave Walsh

Here are some more great resources from friends in the field: Underage Alcohol Use