There are three critical stages of a child’s brain development. All stages of development are impacted by alcohol consumption which is why no alcohol is the safest choice for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and children under 18 years of age.
The brain has three critical periods of development - the fetal period, early childhood, and just after puberty. 1 2 The brain can be harmed by alcohol during any of these critical periods of development as it is vulnerable to the effects of ethanol.
In the womb, the unborn baby develops its basic brain structure which is followed by an intense period of growth in early childhood. This process of basic wiring enables the brain to acquire simple functions of movement, sensation and language, as well as some control over behaviour and emotions during early childhood.3
Alcohol can be harmful to the developing baby. Exposure to alcohol early on in pregnancy may cause structural changes to the central nervous system (brain, spinal cord). Due to this risk, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommend that not drinking alcohol during pregnancy and breastfeeding is the safest option. 4
Following puberty the brain goes through several distinct changes.
Initially the brain increases its network of pathways enabling it to more easily adapt to different situations. Following this increase, the brain prunes the network of pathways to discard the pathways that are not being used. This allows the brain to be more efficient and able to perform more complex forms of thought and behaviour, which will be used as an adult.
At this stage of the brain's development, the activities young people are involved in, including alcohol consumption are crucial in shaping how the brain will turn out at the end of this phase.5
1 Monti P, Miranda R, Nixon K, Sher K, Swartzwelder H, Tapert S, White A, Crews F. Adolescence: Booze, Brains, and Behavior. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 2010; 29(2):207–220.
2 Bava S, Tapert S. Adolescent Brain Development and the Risk for Alcohol and Other Drug Problems. Neuropsychology review 2010; 20(4):398-413.
3 Guerri C, Bazinet A, Riley E. Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and Alterations in Brain and Behaviour. Alcohol & Alcoholism 2009; 44(2):108–114.
4 National Health and Medical Research Council.(2009). Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol: Commonwealth of Australia
5 Squeglia, L, Jacobus, J, Tapert, S. The influence of substance use on adolescent brain development. Clinical EEG Neuroscience. 2009; 40(1): 31–38.
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