Alcohol consumption does, in fact, kill brain cells. What was once a scare tactic to keep people from ingesting alcohol, has been proven to be more than a myth. According to neuropsychologists at Duke University, drinking even a moderate amount of alcohol as a teen can damage the hippocampus – the part of the brain that allows you to take in and remember information. Teens who drink may retain a variety of other neurological and neurocognitive issues, such as memory loss, the inability to retain information, and eventually a decrease in control of motor skills.Neuroscientist Susan Tapert, of University of California San Diego, compared the brain scans of teenagers who are heavy drinkers and binge drinkers with those of teens who don’t drink. These scans revealed nerve tissue damage in the brains of heavy drinkers, which oftentimes can cause paralysis in places like the eyes/eyelids, the throat, the tongue, and more. These results lead to further research into the outcome of teenage drinking. Further performance testing was conducted on students who drank, once again comparing them to non-drinkers. These tests focused on thinking and memory, and the results showed that those who drank received lower scores than their counterparts who didn’t drink. On average heavy drinkers scored 10% lower on the tests than non-drinkers. “I like to think of it as the difference between an A and a B,” says Tapert.
From this testing, a rather interesting pattern emerged. Girls who drank heavily were less able to answer questions related to math and engineering skills. The boys who were tested struggled with attention span. So if something was at all boring, it was incredibly difficult for the boys to focus for an extended period of time.
One of the main reasons drinking as a teenager is dangerous is because of the brain still being “under construction,” because not only does underage drinking affect the already developed parts of the brain, it can also stunt the brains growth. “Adolescence is the most important period of life for learning,” says Dr. Aaron White, of Duke University, “It’s not the time you want to be blocking the ability of the brain to change with experience — and that’s exactly what alcohol does.” When a brain is developing, it is more susceptible to the long-term effects of alcohol. Ron Dahl, from the University of Pittsburgh, says that the teenage brain has a higher tolerance for alcohol’s negative side effects, but this can lead to binge drinking.
After the developmental health problems surrounding teenage drinking became increasingly apparent, Tapert studied the white matter of the brain – which is responsible for sending messages between brain cells. Since the white matter part of the brain continues to grow throughout adolescence, it is yet another reason alcohol consumption can be so dangerous when done at a young age. When comparing the scans of binge drinkers and abstainers, Tapert made another startling discovery. “They appeared to have a number of little dings throughout their brains’ white matter, indicating poor quality,” says Tapert. This seemed odd to her because while yes, the teens were drinking, they weren’t drinking so heavily that it would have been perceived as incredibly dangerous.
All of this begs the question, why do teens engage in drinking when it can be so dangerous? Well, one big problem surrounding teenage and underage drinking is the over-glamorization and normalization of alcohol and being intoxicated. Movies and television help to perpetuate the stereotype that drinking at a young age is ok, and a normal part of life. Not only this, but there has been an increase in the number of alcohol brands showing up in movies that are rated PG-13. One study conducted by JAMA compiled the top 100 films from the years 1996 through 2009, a total of 1400 movies, and discovered 2,433 alcohol brand appearances, which is more than enough to implant the want to drink alcohol in any teenager’s brain.
Another study sponsored by the University of Bristol revealed that adolescents who had been exposed to large numbers of scenes including alcohol consumption in films were more likely to drink. These teens were 20% more likely to try alcohol, and 70% more likely to binge drink. Now just because a character on television or in a movie drinks doesn’t automatically make a teenager want to try drinking alcohol, but the more adolescents are exposed to the idea of drinking, the more normal it seems to at least try drinking.
This brings us to yet another issue. The overexposure of alcohol consumption in films and media. With big companies pushing their products in movies, it becomes increasingly difficult for young people not to become interested. For this reason, some people are calling for films showcasing alcohol to raise their viewing age from 13 to 17 (PG-13 rating to R rating).
Even though this is a problem, some companies are attempting to combat these negative messages. One campaign called “ATI” (or Above The Influence) is funded both publicly and privately and hopes to prevent alcohol and drug use in teenagers. The United States Office of National Drug Control Policy spent $540 million to get the campaign off of the ground, an amount which was later matched by private companies who supported the initiative. Another popular campaign is the “truth” campaign. This project hopes to combat the use of cigarettes and electronic nicotine products by adolescents. Both of these campaigns advertise on television but are starting to spread their messages on social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat, where teens spend a lot of their time.
In conclusion, alcohol use by teenagers and adolescents is an epidemic. However, it is not unsolvable. The number of young people who drink as teens in high school has diminished to only 35% as of 2016, and with the amount of effort being put into stopping teens from becoming involved with alcohol, a solution may be closer than what was previously thought. As for the damage made to the hippocampus and white matter part of the brain, since young minds are still developing, it is easier to restore some of what may have been lost. While no one can completely reverse the effect of alcohol on the teenage brain, if an adolescent’s drinking problem is caught early enough, there is hope for a nearly complete recovery.
Even with the ability to restore the brain, it is still very important to keep teenagers away from the alcohol epidemic. Teens are more likely to become alcoholics than adults are, and there is too much to risk.