Teenager Brains on Booze

Alcohol abuse can breakdown certain brain structures during adolescence

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Teenagers aren’t allowed to drink because it’s dangerous. Not just accident-prone dangerous, but actual breakdown of the brain’s white matter dangerous.

A recent study followed 92 teenagers for 18 months to see if alcohol and marijuana use would change the structure and functionality of their brain’s white matter. Links were found between heavy alcohol use and damaged white matter, which plays a role in decision making, memory and attention span.

“The teen brain is continuing to develop, so many neural systems are not yet fully matured, as compared to adults’ brains,” said lead author.

"Talk to your kids about alcohol use."

Joanna Jacobus, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in biological psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of California in San Diego, led researchers to investigate the effects of alcohol and marijuana consumption during adolescence on the brain.

Dr. Jacobus said, ““Research has shown differences in the brains of teens who use alcohol and marijuana as compared to teens who do not use these drugs or report only very infrequent, minimal use.”

“Alcohol and marijuana may have a negative impact by altering important cellular communication in the brain, preventing development of new healthy cells, and/or causing inflammation, which can adversely impact healthy brain development in many ways.”

For the study, 92 adolescents, 41 with extensive and 51 with little to no alcohol and marijuana use, were followed for 18 months. All participants were given diffusion tensor imaging brain scans, toxicology screenings for substances at the start of the study and again after 18 months. Detailed substance use assessments were taken at the start and every six months through out the study.

After 18 months, teens in the heavy use group showed breakdowns in seven areas of the brain’s white matter, which is the central tissue of the brain beneath the grey matter.

Dr. Jacobus referred to white matter as the “information highway of the brain,” which transmits signals or information between areas of the brain.

Damaged white matter can result in breakdowns in these communication highways impairing memory, focus and the ability to make decisions.

Researchers found the more alcohol use over the 18 months of the study resulted in more white matter damage. More marijuana use did not correspond with white matter breakdown.

Dr. Jacobus said, “Our findings underscore that early initiation of alcohol and marijuana use can have negative implications on the brain. We hope this information can be communicated to teens to help them understand why drinking during adolescence is discouraged.”

This study was published in December in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. Funding was supported by the National Institutes of Health. No conflicts of interest were found.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 18, 2012
Last Updated:
December 22, 2012