Drinking Alcohol During Adolescence Modifies The Brain

The consumption of these drinks alters the brain of young people and their mental faculties.

We live in a society in which alcohol consumption among young people has become popular and in which it is part of a large number of traditions and events. Used as an element to cause both mental and physical disinhibition and to socialize, with the passage of time the age of onset of alcohol consumption has been decreasing.

Currently, the average age at which one begins to drink these substances is around thirteen years old. Although the immediate effects of an intoxication are known, what is not so well known is that the habitual consumption of alcohol, even without becoming dependent, causes changes in the brain structure of  adolescents. 

These changes are especially noticeable and have a greater effect when consumption has occurred in individuals in the process of development. In other words, we can consider that alcohol consumption in adolescence causes brain changes.

Alcohol and adolescence: a bad combination

Alcohol is one of the most popular legal drugs in the world, frequently used in all kinds of contexts by the vast majority of the population. It is a substance that falls into the category of psycholeptics or depressants because its main effect is to cause a decrease in the activity of the nervous system. 

Although it seems paradoxical, in small doses this depressant effect produces an increase in the sensation of euphoria and well-being, since it inhibits subcortical territories and some of the inhibitory processes that we normally use to regulate our behavior. That is why it facilitates socialization and why the vast majority of people consume alcohol recreationally.

At high doses of alcohol, however, more properly depressive effects appear, with an alteration of the level of consciousness, mental and physical slowness and loss of part of reasoning and executive functions in general.

Given the reinforcing effects that appear with the consumption of small amounts of alcohol, it is frequent that adolescents, who are in search of their identity through experimentation and bonding with people far from authority figures and family members, decide to resort to drinking as a means of socializing and disinhibiting their impulses. 

However, in addition to the risk of severe intoxication (in which ethyl coma and even death from cardiorespiratory arrest may appear) and dependence that alcohol can already cause at any age, it must be taken into account that the brain The adolescent is still in a developmental period, so the consumption of substances with psychoactive properties can cause serious structural and functional alterations in his brain.

Changes in brain structure

The latest research carried out shows that alcohol consumption at an early age, in which the brain has not yet fully developed, produces relevant long-term changes in the structure and configuration of neurons.

Specifically, the clearest effects occur in  parts of the brain related to learning, memory and executive functions. In experiments carried out with rodents it has been shown that individuals who during the development stage have consumed relatively frequently in the adult stage have much more difficulties in memory, anticipation and planning tasks. These effects occur especially due to the involvement of the  hippocampus , the  limbic system and the  frontal lobe .

Effects on the hippocampus

Alcohol  causes the hippocampus not to develop as much as that of individuals who have not consumed. The cells in this brain location appear immature and underdeveloped compared to those in adults who have not consumed alcohol frequently.

It has also been observed that long-term potentiation, one of the processes through which by strengthening  synapses (the spaces through which neurons communicate with each other) we reinforce learning and that it is especially active during childhood and adolescence , is especially active. Although this might seem positive, this activation reaches such a level that it ends up collapsing and not producing further learning.

Based on the immaturity of the cells observed, it is speculated that the effect of alcohol, a depressant-type substance, probably alters the maturation process. In this sense, it has also been proven that the formation of new neurons and connections between them slows down and even stops.

The involvement of this area induces severe difficulties in recognition and  short-term memory, with long-term memory generally being preserved. More than forgetting the information withheld, the most important problems would be at the level of the ability to “record” and store new information.

Frontal involvement

In addition to the hippocampus, another area that most alters when drinking alcohol in adolescence is the frontal lobe, the part of the brain most linked to impulse control, planning and executive functions in general, also affecting some facets of personality.

Long-term continued alcohol consumption generates alterations in this area, producing a high level of neuronal degeneration and death, especially in the prefrontal area. These alterations appear in people of any age who consume alcohol abuse for long periods, but nevertheless it has been proven that in developing brains such as those of adolescents the level of neuronal death is much higher than in other stages.

This can cause the now adolescents to have impulse control problems in the future, decreasing their capacity for inhibition, which in the long run they adopt a more aggressive and impulsive attitude. It is also common for individuals who frequent alcohol during the early stages to have less capacity for concentration and planning than expected. Finally, in the long term, the ability to set goals and self-motivation decreases, with a fall into depressive and anxiety states being more likely.

Effects on the brain’s reward system

It has been shown that during adolescence dopamine receptors are especially activated and have a certain hypersensitivity to this  neurotransmitter, this being one of the reasons why adolescents in general tend to seek new experiences that stimulate them.

In this sense, another element that the various studies carried out has reflected is that a higher frequency of dependence on substances is observed among subjects who began to drink before the age of fourteen compared to those who had their first experiences with alcohol from the twenties (a time when the brain is already fully developed or close to completing its development process).

This fact can be linked, together with the alteration of the inhibition mechanisms of frontal affectation, to an alteration in the pathways that regulate emotions and the  sensation of reward. Both the action on  GABA and the inhibition of NMDA glutamate receptors produced by alcohol induce an increase in dopaminergic activity in the striatum, which in being already hypersensitized due to the development process can lead to an ease in fixing behaviors that stimulate even more, such as the consumption of alcohol or other substances.

Bibliographic references:

  • Calvo, HB (2009). Alcohol and neuropsychology. Revista Neuropsicología, Neuropsiquiatría y Neurosciencias, vol.9, Nº2: pp. 53-76.
  • Risher, ML; Fleming, RL; Risherm WC; Miller, KM; Klein, RC; Wills, T .; Acheson, SK; Moore, SD; Wilson, WA; Eroglu, C. & Swartzwelder, HS (2015). Adolescent intermittent alcohol exposure: persistence of structiral and functional hippocampal abnosrmalities into adulthood. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research; 39 (6): 989-97.
  • Stephens, DN and Duka, T. (2008). Cognitive and emotional consequences of binge drinking: role of amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, 363, 3169-3179.

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