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Alcohol Damages the Teen-age Brain

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Both the right and left hippocampi were smaller in teens with drinking problems in comparison with the normal controls. "The difference was fairly substantial, about a 10% difference, which for this area of the brain is a major difference," Clark says. The shrinkage was limited to the hippocampus; no differences were found in other brain areas.

The shrinkage of the hippocampus was greatest in those who began drinking at an early age and in those individuals who were long-time abusers. The authors say the findings suggest that, during adolescence, the hippocampus may be particularly susceptible to the effects of alcohol.

Clark says that studies conducted in animals, as well as on adults with longstanding alcohol use disorders, suggest that alcohol consumption causes the brain damage. Other explanations, however, may be possible. For instance, the brain changes may have preceded the alcohol consumption and contributed to the onset of the alcohol abuse. Or another risk factor may have caused both the drinking behavior and brain changes.

Clark says that at this early stage, it is difficult to say whether brain changes or alcohol abuse come first. He says that longitudinal studies are needed to confirm and expand the findings.

Vital Information:

  • The brain still is developing during the teen years. A new report suggests drinking alcohol during this time may damage vulnerable areas in the brain. More study is needed to determine the significance of the damage and if it's reversible.
  • In the study, doctors took images of teen drinkers' brains and compared them with images from nondrinking peers. Drinkers showed smaller brain regions in charge of memory and learning.
  • Drinkers also showed more signs of other mental conditions like depression, conduct disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
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