Does Drinking Alcohol Damage Young Brains?
by David J. Hanson, Ph. D.

Does drinking in adolescence harm brain development? Does consuming alcohol before age 21 cause permanent brain damage? Does underage drinking retard mental development?

The evidence about teen drinking and potential brain damage comes from two sources.

(1) The first source of evidence is from lab rats that are typically given very large doses of alcohol. Large enough quantities of alcohol appear to cause brain impairment in young rats, especially if given over a long enough period of time.

A serious problem is that rats aren’t humans and many if not most processes found in rats don’t apply at all to humans. For example, innumerable drugs cure diseases in rats but the vast majority of such drugs fail to do so in humans.

(2) The second source of evidence comes from humans. However, the humans who are studied are virtually always alcohol and/or drug dependent individuals. Not surprisingly, long-time alcohol abusers tend not to do as well at a variety of mental tasks as those who don’t abuse alcohol. 1

It appears that large enough quantities of alcohol can impair brain development in rats and that it can also do the same in humans. There’s no surprising news there.

These studies never deal with light or moderate alcohol consumption among young humans. However, “natural experiments” on drinking among young people have been going on for thousands of years around the world.

In many societies most people drink and they begin doing so in the home from a very early age. Examples familiar to most people include Italians, Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, French, Germans and Spaniards. 13 There is neither evidence or any reason to even suspect that members of these groups are brain impaired compared to those societies that do not permit young people to consume alcohol.

There appears to be absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the light or moderate consumption of alcohol by persons under the age of 21 causes any brain impairment or harm.

Federally-funded research does suggest that teens who drink alcohol with their parents are less likely than others to have either consumed alcohol or abused it in recent weeks according to a nation-wide study of over 6,200 teenagers in 242 communities across the U.S.

Drinking alcohol with parents “may help teach them responsible drinking habits or extinguish some of the ‘novelty’ or ‘excitement’ of drinking” according to senior researcher Dr. Kristie Long Foley of the School of Medicine at Wake Forest University. Dr. Foley describes drinking with parents as a “protective” behavior.

Contrary to popular belief, drinking with parental approval is legal in many states across the country. Only seven states prohibit those under age 21 from drinking under all circumstances.

(Adapted from Alcohol Problems and Solutions

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