Alcohol Damages the Teen-age Brain
June 2, 2000 -- Researchers have just come up with another reason to warn
teen-agers not to drink alcohol: Specialized brain imaging studies have shown
that teens and young adults, who drank heavily over long periods of time,
showed shrinkage of an area of the brain that is responsible for memory and
learning. This shrinkage was not seen in teens who did not drink.
The risk of this type of damage is greatest in those who begin drinking at a
younger age and those who drink for longer periods of time, according to the
"Only in recent years have we known the extent of brain development
during adolescence," says co-author of the study, Duncan B. Clark, MD, PhD.
"The hippocampus is one of the areas that's rapidly changing at this time
and may be particularly affected by alcohol."
But Clark also suggests that the toxic effects of alcohol on the brain might
be reversible, especially if the alcohol use is discontinued early.
Susan F. Tapert, PhD, a research scientist with the Veterans Medical
Research Foundation and the University of California at San Diego, reviewed the
study for WebMD. "We still need more studies, but it looks like there's a
good possibility that drinking heavily during the teen-age years could affect
your ability to remember things and learn new things," she says. "If
you want to do well in school and be able to remember all kinds of things that
you learn, it's best to avoid any kind of heavy drinking."
Many people may be surprised to learn that the brain is still developing
during the teen years. "Adolescence is a period during which we now know
the brain continues to rapidly develop," Clark says. "We know that
alcohol can damage the brain. Adolescent alcohol abuse and dependence may have
a damaging effect on adolescent brain development, and it is possible that
these effects have lifelong adverse consequences.
"The effects of alcohol problems on adolescent brain development have
not received much attention, in part because the technology for examining the
brain has only recently been developed to the point where we can see the small
differences we would expect in the adolescent period. ... This technology [for
seeing the brain] provides us with a method for examining areas of the brain
that may be affected by alcohol," says Clark, who is director of the
Pittsburgh Adolescent Alcohol Research Center.
In this report in the June issue of the American Journal of
Psychiatry, a special brain scan, called an MRI, was used to measure
differences in the sizes of various brain regions in 12 adolescents and young
adults who used alcohol excessively, and 24 healthy youngsters who had no
The researchers focused on measuring the size of an area of the brain, the
hippocampus, which is known to be sensitive to the effects of alcohol in
adults. The hippocampus is associated with learning and memory functions, Clark
says. Two hippocampi are found in the brain, one on the right side and the
other on the left side.