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Adolescent Alcohol Abuse and Brain Development

by James Heller 14. April 2009 13:57
April, 2009 marks the 22nd year of Alcohol Awareness Month.  

Tarzana Treatment Centers is participating with a series of articles meant to inform and educate the general public about alcohol abuse, dependence and treatment.  Considering that over 21 million Americans meet the criteria for alcohol abuse and over 53 million admit to past-month binge drinking, not to mention the many loved ones affected by each, our efforts are worthwhile.


Adolescents risk much more than a hangover from alcohol abuse.  In recent years evidence points to critical brain development during teen years and how alcohol abuse poses a threat to that development.

It is known from decades of research that alcohol abuse and dependence does irreversible damage to the adult brain.  The damage comes from the death of brain cells, causing long-term memory loss among various other possible problems.  In general, the damage has to do with lost abilities.

For adolescents, the problems have more to do with how the brain will operate later in life.  The excerpt below is from a report by Duke University Assistant Research Professor Aaron M. White, PhD.  The full report is a detailed look at how alcohol abuse effects adolescent brain development, and is linked after the excerpt.

The brain’s development appears to continue up to age 21 according to latest research.  Professor White suggests below that there is a child phase and an adolescent phase.  Simply put, brain cells grow and work together based in part on experiences with others in both phases.  The adolescent phase is separate from the child phase.  New experiences may cause new cell connections or eliminate them during adolescence, changing the way the brain operates.

Binge drinking not only kills some brain cells in adolescents, but also interferes with new connections between healthy cells.  Depending on which cells are altered, behavior patterns and learning abilities can suffer permanent negative effects.  Knowing this offers a new sense of urgency in seeking adolescent alcohol treatment at the first signs of teen alcohol abuse.

-- Begin external content --

Overproduction of neuronal tissue is a central theme in early brain development, from the womb to late childhood. Human infants are born with far more neurons than are present in the adult brain. The selection process that determines whether an individual cell lives or dies is based on several factors, including the transmission of neurotrophic factors from the post-synaptic cell to the pre-synaptic cell in response to excitatory synaptic activity. In this way, cells that fire together wire together, and those that do not make meaningful contacts with other cells do not survive. One key benefit of this process is that it allows a child’s brain to be sculpted by his/her interactions with the outside world (Chugani, 1998).

       In recent years, it has become clear that, during adolescence, as in childhood, the brain is highly plastic and shaped by experience. A substantial number of synapses are eliminated, or pruned, in the cortex during adolescence, and this process is presumably influenced, at least in part, by interactions with the outside world (Huttenlocher, 1979; Lidow et al., 1991; Seeman, 1999). It is tempting to conclude that adolescent brain development must simply be an extension of childhood brain development; that it represents a transition stage between childhood and adulthood in a manner similar to how adolescence itself has long been viewed. In actuality, it appears that many of the changes that take place during the second decade of life are novel and do not simply represent the trailing remnants of childhood plasticity.

-- Source: http://www.duke.edu/~amwhite/Adolescence/index.html --

Tarzana Treatment Centers in Los Angeles makes a daily effort to find treatment news articles that we can share with our readers in the alcohol and drug treatment community.  The external content was found among other articles of equal informational and educational quality.