Alcohol and the adolescent brain

Teenage boy drinking beer from a bottle

At a glance

  • Alcohol affects teenagers' brain development and can have lifelong effects.
  • The younger adolescents are when they drink, the greater the risk of damage and dependency.
  • Our brains aren't fully developed until our mid-late 20's.
  • Teens can drink more than adults before they become sleepy, increasing the risk of serious injury.
  • Drinking should be delayed until after 18 years of age.
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Recent advances in medical imaging technology have increased our knowledge of the teenage brain. We now know that alcohol interrupts the brain's proper development and the damaging effects can be life long.

Between the ages of about 12 and the mid to late 20's your child's brain is undergoing massive structural changes.

The parts of the brain responsible for learning, planning, emotional stability and thinking are "under-construction" and are at a critical stage of development.

Diagram of the teenage brain

The adolescent brain is often likened to a fast growing tree, as it sprouts an excess of branch-like pathways and connections. The pathways they use frequently are strengthened and kept; those which aren't used are pruned back. It's literally a case of "use it or lose it". 

Experience sculpts the brain during this time, so the more teenagers do something, the stronger those particular brain connections will become.

Read the fact sheet:  Alcohol and adolescent development (pdf 695 KB)

Professor Ian Hickie, from the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Research Institute says, "it is rapidly becoming clearer that alcohol and the teenage brain don't mix".

Drinking alcohol before the brain reaches full maturity can have long-term health consequences, which is explained in an easy way for teens to understand in this video.

Professor Hickie believes the researchindicates:

  1. alcohol should not be consumed by teenagers under the age of 18 years; 
  2. alcohol use is best postponed for as long as possible in the late teenage and early adult years. 

Long-term risks of early drinking.
According to the research,  not only are teenagers' brains more sensitive to long-term damage from alcohol, drinking before adulthood increases their chance of developing alcohol dependency. It seems the younger people are when they have their first drink, the greater the risk. 

Teens who use alcohol to help manage stress, anxiety or depression are reinforcing the connection in their brain between needing alcohol to cope. They're also missing the chance to learn and reinforce better, positive ways of dealing with problems throughout their lives.

We all know that alcohol also reduces inhibitions – after drinking we do things we wouldn't normally. Young people tend to take risks - and those who drink are much more likely to take life-threatening risks. 

The double whammy is that teenagers are also on a different sleep cycle to adults and are generally more wakeful in the evening.

This means that while adults tend to get sleepy after increased alcohol consumption, young adults are less sensitive to these sedating effects (due to their higher levels of arousal).

At a point in the evening when many adults might stop drinking, teens are able to continue, putting them at greater risk of serious injury.

Professor Ian Hickie's research also warns that consuming alcohol and other "brain-toxic substances" during adolescence has the potential to increase the risk of anxiety or mood-related mental health problems in later life.

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