ZIt’s easy to think of heavy drinking, even binge drinking, as an unfortunate but inescapable reality for teenagers and young adults. Many teenagers and those of newly minted drinking age experiment with alcohol use and frequently drink far too much in too short a time.
However, for the most part, young adults lose their taste for binge drinking and learn to moderate their alcohol consumption. This makes it even easier to shrug off heavy, irresponsible drinking among young adults and assume that they will eventually change their ways.
The problem with this line of thought (quite apart from the risk of alcohol poisoning or alcohol use disorders) is that heavy drinking in adolescence can do lasting damage to the brain. An increasing volume of research, including a new study from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, reveals the structural changes in the brain and memory that result from teenage drinking.
The Massachusetts study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, involved rats that were given daily access to alcohol during their adolescence. When the rats reached adulthood, the researchers discovered changes in the structure of their brains due to their exposure to alcohol. Levels of myelin, which is a fatty substance that coats nerve fibers in the brain, were reduced in the rats that were given access to alcohol at a young age. The researchers also found that adolescent alcohol exposure appeared to have a behavioral impact in addition to a structural impact: the rats who drank in adolescence continued to perform worse on memory tests well into adulthood.
This research suggests that human teenagers who drink heavily for a period in adolescence run the risk of permanent structural brain damage and impaired memory. Previous studies have also suggested this risk, but since they were performed on humans rather than rodents, the researchers were unable to control for various environmental factors that could be contributing to cognitive impairment.
There have always been risks associated with heavy drinking and binge drinking, especially among adolescents. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 5,000 people under the age of 21 die each year from alcohol poisoning, alcohol-related car crashes, alcohol-related homicides or suicides or other accidents involving underage drinking. Furthermore, heavy drinking greatly increases the risks of alcohol dependence and other use disorders.
However, it has been easy to believe that those who escape serious harm, dependence or addiction during young adulthood will not suffer any consequences from heavy underage drinking. Research such as the new study from Massachusetts is increasingly demonstrating that this belief is not correct and that teenagers who drink heavily may be damaging their brains for life.
While it is too early to know for sure whether the results of heavy teenage drinking are likely to be permanent or simply long-lasting, this information highlights the importance of reducing heavy drinking and binge drinking among teenagers. It is not only important to help teenagers get through periods of alcohol experimentation and binge drinking without addiction or serious injury, but also to spread the knowledge that heavy drinking can be harmful, even if it does not result in any short-term consequences.