Science Sunday: Alcohol and the Adolescent Brain
Why hello there readers, and a happy St. Patty’s Day to you! I hope you all are celebrating with something green and Irish, but we here at Teen Skepchick decided that St. Patty’s day was an appropriate time to talk about a different kind of celebration, one that perhaps will not leave you feeling celebratory for too long. Yes, you may have noticed that here in the United States, some people like to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with alcohol. And some of them may like to go a little overboard on their alcohol intake. And (le gasp) SOME of them may even be underage. Now as most of you are supposedly underage, I figured this might be a good time to have The Talk with you. No, not that talk, we’ve already had a bunch of sex talks. The Talk about alcohol.
I’m going to start this post with the assumption that none of you have ever touched so much as a drop of alcohol in your lives and are coming to this with virgin ears about the horrors of alcohol. And so instead of trying to scare you off with the promises that alcohol will leave you hungover and ruin your life and make you drop out of school (newsflash: it will do the first, it probably won’t do the second and third), I will instead use The Science. Alcohol does have some serious effects on your brain and body, and because adolescence is a very peculiar time in terms of brain development, it can have some harmful and long-lasting impacts on the adolescent brain. As you are all intelligent and skeptically minded individuals, I hope that you all want to preserve your brains and help them grow as well as possible. And here’s a super big secret: alcohol is not a very good way to do this.
Adolescent brains are famous for how they develop: while most of the brain has already grown into what it will be in adulthood, the frontal lobes are still developing, which means that higher level thinking skills that involve risk management and analysis, abstract thinking, and emotional regulation are still in the process of developing. Adolescence is also a time when your brain starts pruning out unnecessary connections, making adolescents particularly susceptible to the “use it or lose it” phenomenon. We build pathways in our brain by repeatedly using certain functions. Adolescence is when those specializations really start to get built. Another important aspect of adolescent brain development is myelination (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myelin), or the growth of the myelin sheath over the cells in the brain.
So what do these differences mean about the way that adolescents react to alcohol? Well there are a number of statistics about the basic effects of alcohol on adolescents, for example young adults are more likely to get into accidents with a lower BAC than their adult counterparts, and a lower age of the onset of alcohol use corresponds to a higher likelihood of longterm alcohol abuse. But what about the brain itself? Because the brain is still developing, it is particularly vulnerable to certain aspects of alcohol. Binge-drinking or excessive alcohol use in adolescence is linked with a smaller hippocampus and a decrease in pre-frontal white matter. This means that your brain’s size and shape can be permanently impacted by excess drinking as an adolescence. It’s uncertain whether these effects might be reversible after long-term abstinence, but especially based on the fact that alcohol abuse in youth is a huge predictor for alcohol abuse in adulthood, abstinence is extremely hard after alcohol abuse. In addition, alcohol use in teens has been particularly linked to problems with memory and learning, verbal and communication problems, spatial functioning difficulties, lower attention, poor planning, and lowered abstract thinking. These are longterm effects. One study showed that they persisted even after a full month of abstinence, and some studies have suggested that these effects can persist into adulthood. These are some serious problems for anyone who wants to keep themselves sharp and skeptical.
A sidenote that many of you might find particularly interesting: there is some evidence that females are more vulnerable to these effects than males. So you young skepchicks out there, be careful. Alcohol can be fun, but especially as a young adult it can be incredibly dangerous and have serious long term effects on your cognitive abilities. This St. Patty’s Day let’s listen to the science and find some other way to celebrate.