How Binge Drinking Affects The Teenage Brain
As children grow, cells in the brain (known as neurons) are constantly making new connections with other cells in the brain. The stronger these neural pathways within the brain become, the more efficiently children can perform new skills. Neural pathways within the brain strengthen whenever new skills are learnt and, to some degree, this process continues throughout life. In other words, we are not born with a fully developed brain.
Dr Simon Rowley, a paediatrician at National Women’s Hospital and trustee of the Brainwave Trust, describes the adolescent brain as still ‘under construction.’ He says young men’s brains do not fully mature until they are in their early 20s. Anything which interrupts or impedes this process of neurological development may adversely affect brain function later on.
Alcohol tends to shrink the prefrontal cortex and white brain matter in those who drink excessively, an effect which is more pronounced for males than females. A part of the brain known as the hippocampus is also uniquely responsive to alcohol during adolescent development and seems to be especially sensitive to neurotoxicity. The hippocampus plays a major role in short term memory so damage to this area may impact on learning ability. Binge drinking at any time before brain development is complete exposes the adolescent brain to these risks.
Early alcohol use also increases the likelihood that a young drinker will eventually become alcohol dependent. One survey suggests that nearly half of those who begin drinking before the age of 14 will become alcohol dependent at some point in their lives. Making matters worse, teenagers in particular are slow to understand that their drinking may be problematic. A third of those who become dependent before the age of 18 wait ten years or more after the onset of dependence before seeking help.
Given what is known about the impact of alcohol on the developing teenage brain, the government’s decision in 1999 to lower the legal age of purchase to 18 was highly irresponsible. That decision made alcohol increasingly available to those under the age of 18 as well as those over 18, and added to the problems of those teenagers who are already vulnerable to peer pressure. This decision went against evidence based recommendations made by the World Health Organisation on reducing alcohol related harm, and added to the destructive impact that alcohol has on one of the most vulnerable sectors of our community.
If government is serious about reducing alcohol related harm in society, this decision needs to be revisited. However, it seems unlikely to be reversed while National and Labour still abdicate responsibility for the damage alcohol causes by delegating alcohol issues to the archaic process of conscience voting.