Think before you drink

New research reveals the impact that alcohol can have on the adolescent brain. 

Words: Kimberly Gillan

Up until recently, scientists believed that most human brain development occurred before birth and in early childhood1. But new studies have found our brains actually keep developing until we’re in our early 20s and that drinking alcohol during that period can be damaging1.

“It was assumed in the past that once you were past puberty and into your adolescence, you were more or less dealing with an adult brain – that’s not true,” says Professor Ian Hickie, Executive Director of the Brain & Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney.

“What’s very clear from modern brain imaging and psychological studies is the extent to which binge drinking, which is common in young people, actually causes damage to developing areas of the brain.”

With the average Australian teenager consuming alcohol from the age of 15½1, Professor Hickie says we need to educate teens about the impact that drinking can have on brain development.

Risky business

The biggest danger for adolescents drinking alcohol is damaging the frontal lobes of the brain – the section responsible for judgement, complex decision-making, planning for the future and parts of our memory, which continues developing into our early 20s.

“Drinking alcohol causes damage to some of the memory centres and the connections between the frontal lobes and other parts of the brain that are essential to development from being a child to being an adult,” explains Professor Hickie.

Teenagers are also more likely to engage in dangerous behaviour while they’re drunk, such as drink driving, violence and unwanted sex. In fact, it’s estimated that one teenager dies and 60 are hospitalised every week in Australia from alcohol-related causes2.

The correlation between teenage drinking and the onset of mental health issues is also alarming.

“Mental health problems are made worse by alcohol use,” says Professor Hickie. 

Younger drinkers are also more at risk of becoming alcoholics. US studies show that people who begin drinking when they are 15 are four times more likely to become an alcoholic, than people who start drinking after the age of 213.

Spreading the message

The evidence is clear that the longer teenagers can delay drinking, the better their chances of healthy brain development. But convincing teenagers to steer clear of alcohol until they’re at least 18 can be difficult for parents.

While some people believe introducing alcohol to adolescents at home deters them from binging with friends, Professor Hickie believes this is not a good idea. “It’s highly contestable that somehow socialising them at home will have any effect over their drinking behaviour outside of home,” he says.

Instead, Sydney psychologist Melissa Podmore suggests that parents start educating their children from the age of 12 about the dangers of drinking. “It needs to be something we are repeatedly discussing with kids, just like we would have done with stranger danger when they were four,” says Podmore. “It’s important to show how they can say no to pressure [to drink].”

References: 1 Drinkwise,’t-mix 2 Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council, 3 The Salvation Army, ‘The facts: binge drinking and alcohol abuse’, 

Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this article. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.