Saturday, January 28, 2017

The basics of alcohol and the adolescent brain.

This week I was speaking to a group of high school teachers, and we really came into those curious questions as to what drives students to drink. While my background really can't begin to give complete rationale as to why students drink (this is a combination of psychology, anthropology, and curiosity) I would like to just share the basics of what alcohol really does to the both the teenage brain, and to the brain in general.

  • The use of alcohol is somewhat replacing the use of tobacco. In 1965 the average age at which alcohol was first consumed was 17.5. In 2009, that average age was 14.
  • One can make an argument for alcohol replacing tobacco: the use of tobacco by teenagers has been consistently decreasing 5-7% per year over the last 8 years.
  • Teenage brains have the upper hand on handling the sedation associated with alcohol. coordination, hangovers, and the onset of drowsiness are all handled better by teens.
  • The development (and efficiency) of the prefrontal cortex has not reached full development in teens, and use of alcohol will inhibit its completion. That can lead to the onset of depression, ADD, and difficulty with memory.
  • Research has found a correlation between the relative size of the hippocampus and the age at which the individual began consuming alcohol. This relation is one where the earlier the chronic use of alcohol, the smaller the hippocampus. 
  • When consuming large amounts of alcohol, our ability to retain memories decreases. This is caused by the alcohol killing neurons, and the hippocampus being unable to produce new ones.
  • Sporadic but heavy adolescent drinkers perform worse on tests of verbal and nonverbal memory than adolescents who do not drink.
  • Extensive alcohol consumption in teen years damages the corpus collosum. Research suggests that this leads to the brain only able to handle fewer pieces of information when needing to make a decision. Instead of an individual pulling memories and beliefs from multiple areas of the brain in both hemispheres, damage to the corpus collosum results in the brain only being able to handle simpler levels of judgement. 

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