When it comes to substances like alcohol and tobacco, there are important reasons why individuals are required to be of a certain age. Alcohol consumption is dangerous for youths who experience its effects at a much greater magnitude. There are inevitable health risks associated with the consumption of controlled substances too. In some cases, the health effects can be alleviated or minimized by using those substances only as directed or with conservative moderation. Of course, while teens may be aware of the importance of moderation, many young people assume that the same rules that apply to adults also apply to them, which is a major misconception. Subadults — a term used to refer to individuals who are no longer children yet are still below the age at which a person is legally considered an adult1 — are still in physical and, most importantly, physiological development. In fact, science has shown us that teenagers’ brains continue to undergo dramatic structural and functional changes as they draw ever closer to adulthood. The use of alcohol and other mind-altering substances is dangerous for even the fully-matured brains of adults, but this danger is compounded when the brain of the individual consuming alcohol is still developing. However, the dangers associated with teenage alcohol consumption may be even worse than we’d previously believed.

Alcohol and the Teenage Brain

Prior studies have identified a link between adolescent alcohol consumption and lasting deterioration in neuropsychological performance. In other words, these are effects that could be long-term or permanent rather than experienced only while under the influence. As well, neuropsychological performance is a blanket term that includes such key cognitive functions as memory, attention, spatial reasoning, abstract reasoning, goal-directed behavior, planning and a number of other executive functions.2

The lasting effects of alcohol use on the adolescent brain was confirmed by comparing the results of cognitive assessments taken by two groups of adolescents, one group consisting of teens who had previously used alcohol and a control group of teens who had no history of alcohol use. Upon comparison, researchers saw a significant difference in the cognitive performance of the two groups.

Research into the effects of teenage alcohol use has been extensive with the near unanimous consensus being that adolescents’ brains and bodies are far less able to process alcohol than adults,3 especially when consumed in large amounts. Of course, many of these studies have focused on the psychological effects of adolescent alcohol abuse while providing minimal insight on how alcohol abuse is affecting the brains of teens on a physical, structural level as well as what the implications of those physical changes could be.

Lasting Consequences for Teen Alcohol Users

Alcohol affects the brain in a number of key ways, but one of the most notable is how alcohol alters the brain’s neurochemistry. When alcohol reaches the brain, it mimics a neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA. This neurotransmitter is important because it helps a person to calm down — both physically and emotionally — during times of anxiety and stress. Through prior research, we’ve discovered effects on the brain’s neurotransmitters last far beyond the period of intoxication, showing lasting damage when an individual is a chronic alcohol user. Therefore, the question becomes what kind of lasting effects that adolescents experience when they consume alcohol.

A recent study — conducted by researchers from the University of Eastern Finland in partnership with Kuopio University Hospital — sought to identify the permanent brain changes that result from adolescent alcohol use. This was done by testing a group of adults who were between the ages of 23 and 28; half the participants had used alcohol during adolescence while the other half had no history of adolescent alcohol use. In the test, the participants received transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) with simultaneous electroencephalogram (EEG) recording; in other words, a series of harmless electromagnetic pulses were directed at each participant’s head and into the brain so that researchers could record and observe how different areas of his or her cortex responded to electrical stimulation.4 The test also allowed the researchers to observe the functional connectivity of the various regions of the participants’ brains.

Those who had consumed alcohol during adolescence were more sensitive to the electromagnetic stimulation, specifically in areas of the brain that are associated with GABA. Despite the fact that none of the participants met the diagnostic criteria for alcoholism during their adolescence or at the time of testing, researchers were observing a level of GABA sensitivity and altered transmission that would be expected of someone with alcoholism. In essence, these observations indicate that adolescent brains have far greater sensitivity to the effects of alcohol than the brains of adults.

What Does It Mean?

A person doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that underage alcohol consumption is dangerous. However, there’s been a tendency to focus on the social aspects of alcohol consumption among teens, such as childhood exposure to substance abuse and substance use among a teen’s peers. When it comes to the lasting neurological effects, the present study shows that the implications of underage substance abuse are far greater than we previously thought.

While we might have deduced that teens would be somewhat more sensitive to the neurological damage that alcohol can cause, the results of the study detailed above show that the undeveloped brain is exponentially more sensitive to the long-term effects of alcohol use. In short, this study serves as additional evidence of the dangers of underage alcohol consumption. As well, the fact that the damage adolescents experience due to alcohol use is so compounded warrants a very important question: Should the diagnostic criteria for adolescent dependence be even tighter?

1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subadult
2. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh284/205-212.htm
3. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122765890
4. https://www.uef.fi/-/nuoruusian-runsas-alkoholinkaytto-muuttaa-aivojen-sahkoista-toimintaa

Written by Dane O’Leary