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The impact of alcohol on the developing brain

Adolescence is a time of substantial development within the brain, and evidence shows the negative impact alcohol can have on the developing brain 123

The developing brain

Birth of the brain
We are born with twice as many neurons as we ever need in the brain. In next two to three years the neurons connect with each other to create a circuit in the brain – these neurons talk to each other via neurotransmitters. This is how messages are sent throughout your body so it functions correctly 4

During infancy and childhood
During developing years children want to learn as many things they can. How their body moves, how to communicate, how to problem solve, how to use technology. Then it’s puberty. 5

The adolescent brain
Puberty sees the whole body change. And the brain changes too. The period of change within the brain lasts longer than the period of puberty, with brain maturation occurring until approximately 25 years of age. 6

During puberty, development in the brain occurs in stages. Changes to primary systems (such as motor and sensory) occurs in early adolescence as well as increase in brain volume. During later adolescence key changes in the prefrontal cortex (controls planning, judgement), the limbic system (controls emotion, emotional responses and hormone systems) and the corpus callosum (language) sees memory, planning, emotional regulation, decision-making and behavioural inhibition maturing into young adulthood. 78

During adolescence the brain makes three major changes.9101112

  • It refines its network of pathways by pruning the ones not being used;
  • It increases the amountn of white matter on the nerves; and
  • It allows for new talents and lifelong interests to be developed (plasticity).


​These changes prepare people for adulthood as the brain is more efficient, and able to perform more complex forms of thought and behaviour 1314. Alcohol consumption may significantly impact the maturation of the adolescent brain.15

If you are a teenager – tend to the garden of the developing brain, so you can become the person you want to be in adulthood – it really is use it or lose it! 1617

The impact of alcohol on the developing brain

The effects of substances such as alcohol are more permanent on the teenage brain. They have more harmful effects and can be more toxic to teens than in the adults.

Compared with non-alcohol using teenagers, some alcohol using teenagers show significantly smaller brain volumes and lower density within the hippocampus and key prefrontal areas. 1819

The hippocampus is responsible for memory and learning. Studies of adolescents show that heavy and extended alcohol use is associated with a 10% reduction in the size of the hippocampus. It also shows that the function of the hippocampus is uniquely sensitive to alcohol at this time and that alcohol may be poisonous to the nerve cells of the hippocampus causing them to be damaged or destroyed.20

The prefrontal cortex is right at the front of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is proportionally much bigger in humans than in any other species, and it is involved in decision-making, planning and stopping yourself saying or doing something silly 21. It is also involved in social interaction, understanding other people, and self-awareness. A paper 22 investigating impulse-control ability found the reward response (controlled by the prefrontal cortex) differs in teenagers because of multiple changes occurring in the brain during adolescents. Impulse control can be influenced by alcohol consumption, and this influence is seen through to adulthood 23. When comparing prefrontal cortex volumes of adolescent heavy drinkers to non-drinkers, studies have found the prefrontal volumes to be smaller in heavy drinkers2425.

In addition, alcohol acts on the nerve cells of the brain and disrupts the communication between nerves cells and other cells of the body 26. Alcohol suppresses the activities of certain nerve pathways, eventually making a person appear sluggish, lethargic and slow-moving 2728. There is emerging evidence that heavy drinking during adolescence is associated with poorer cognitive functioning and possible brain response abnormalities while performing challenging cognitive tasks due to alcohol causing structural changes in the brain.2930

 

References

1 Peter M. Monti, R. M., Jr., Kimberly Nixon, Kenneth J. Sher, H. Scott Swartzwelder, Susan F. Tapert, Aaron White, and Fulton T. Crews. (2005). Adolescence: Booze, Brains, and Behavior. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 29(2), 207-220. doi:10.1097/01.ALC.0000153551.11000.F3

2 Feldstein Ewing, Sakhardande, S. W., & Blakemore, S.-J. A. (2014). The effect of alcohol consumption on the adolescent brain: A systematic review of MRI and fMRI studies of alcohol-using youth. NeuroImage: Clinical, 5, 420-437. doi:10.1016/j.nicl.2014.06.011

3 Squeglia, L. M., Susan F. Tapert, Ph.D., Edith V. Sullivan, Ph.D., Joanna Jacobus, Ph.D., M.J. Meloy, Ph.D., Torsten Rohlfing, Ph.D., Adolf Pfefferbaum, M.D. (2015). Brain Development in Heavy-Drinking Adolescents. Am J Psychiatry, 172(6), 12. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2015

4 Warner, J., & Mulcahy., (2011). Get Psyched! Psychology for Year 10. 1st edition. Cambridge University Press, p.17

5 BERNSTEIN – TO COME

6 Sharma, S., A, Mathur, R, Nel, S., . . . Johal. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 449. doi:10.2147/ndt.s39776

7 Sharma, S., A, Mathur, R, Nel, S., . . . Johal. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 449. doi:10.2147/ndt.s39776

8 Peter M. Monti, R. M., Jr., Kimberly Nixon, Kenneth J. Sher, H. Scott Swartzwelder, Susan F. Tapert, Aaron White, and Fulton T. Crews. (2005). Adolescence: Booze, Brains, and Behavior. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 29(2), 207-220. doi:10.1097/01.ALC.0000153551.11000.F3

9 Konrad, C. F., Uhlhaas. K.J. (2013). Brain Development During Adolescence. Deutsches Ärzteblatt International, 110(25), 8. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2013.0425

10 Squeglia, L.M.,. & Tapert, S. F. (2009). The Influence of Substance Use on Adolescent Brain. Clin EEG Neurosci, 40(1), 31-38.

11 Squeglia, L. M., & Grey, K. M. (2016). Alcohol and Drug Use and the Developing Brain. Curr Psychiatry Rep, 18(46), 10. doi:10.1007/s11920-016-0689-y

12 Sharma, S., A, Mathur, R, Nel, S., . . . Johal. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 449. doi:10.2147/ndt.s39776

13Giedd, J. N. (2008). The Teen Brain: Insights from Neuroimaging. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42(4), 335-343. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2008.01.007

14 Sharma, S., A, Mathur, R, Nel, S., . . . Johal. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 449. doi:10.2147/ndt.s39776

15 Sharma, S., A, Mathur, R, Nel, S., . . . Johal. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 449. doi:10.2147/ndt.s39776

16 Konrad, C. F., Uhlhaas. K.J. (2013). Brain Development During Adolescence. Deutsches Ärzteblatt International, 110(25), 8. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2013.0425

17 Warner, J., & Mulcahy., (2011). Get Psyched! Psychology for Year 10. 1st edition. Cambridge University Press, p.17

18 Feldstein Ewing, Sakhardande, S. W., & Blakemore, S.-J. A. (2014). The effect of alcohol consumption on the adolescent brain: A systematic review of MRI and fMRI studies of alcohol-using youth. NeuroImage: Clinical, 5, 420-437. doi:10.1016/j.nicl.2014.06.011

19 Squeglia, L. M., Susan F. Tapert, Ph.D., Edith V. Sullivan, Ph.D., Joanna Jacobus, Ph.D., M.J. Meloy, Ph.D., Torsten Rohlfing, Ph.D., Adolf Pfefferbaum, M.D. (2015). Brain Development in Heavy-Drinking Adolescents. Am J Psychiatry, 172(6), 12. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2015

20 NHMRC (2009). Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol (ISBN Online: 1864963808)

21 Konrad, C. F., Uhlhaas. K.J. (2013). Brain Development During Adolescence. Deutsches Ärzteblatt International, 110(25), 8. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2013.0425

22 Casey, B. J., & Caudle, K. (2013). The Teenage Brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(2), 82-87. doi:10.1177/0963721413480170

23 Squeglia, L. M., & Grey, K. M. (2016). Alcohol and Drug Use and the Developing Brain. Curr Psychiatry Rep, 18(46), 10. doi:10.1007/s11920-016-0689-y

24 Squeglia, L.M.,. Jacobus, J & Tapert, S. F. (2009). The Influence of Substance Use on Adolescent Brain. Clin EEG Neurosci, 40(1), 31-38.

25 Monti, R., Nixon, K., Sher, K.J., Swartzwelder, S., Tapert, S., White, A., & Crews., F.T.(2005). Adolescence: Booze, Brains, and Behavior. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 29(2), 207-220. doi:10.1097/01.ALC.0000153551.11000.F3

26 Dillon, P. (2013). Alcohol and the developing brain. Retrieved from: FIND

27 Sharma, S., A, Mathur, R, Nel, S., . . . Johal. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 449. doi:10.2147/ndt.s39776

28 Dillon, P. (2013). Alcohol and the developing brain. Retrieved from: FIND

29 RACP and RANZCP (2016). Alcohol Policy [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.racp.edu.au/docs/default-source/advocacy-library/pa-racp-ranzcp-alcohol-policy.pdf

30 Squeglia, L.M.,. Jacobus, J & Tapert, S. F. (2009). The Influence of Substance Use on Adolescent Brain. Clin EEG Neurosci, 40(1), 31-38.