There is a common conception that teen alcohol use has detrimental effects on social and behavioral aspects of development. For example, it is obvious that involvement in drinking activities directly takes away from time spent at school, sports, music practice, or other constructive opportunities. Not only is the time allocated to participating in drinking activities worthless, but also the time spent recovering from hangovers is an additional debilitating consequence. Furthermore, parents, as well as the media and society, often emphasize the physical dangers associated with alcohol use, such as drinking and driving, hazardous or promiscuous sexual involvement, and alcohol poisoning. However, underage alcohol consumption has dramatic long-term consequences, some of which are significantly impairing and irreversible.
Throughout the 20th century in the United States, the debate over the appropriate legal drinking age has had much controversy. Over the last century, society and the media has been in conflict over whether the legal drinking age should be 18 or 21. Following the end of Prohibition in 1933, 21 became to the legal age to enter a bar or purchase alcohol; the Vietnam War in the 1950’s to 1970’s prompted the controversy over whether it is fair that one can fight and die for this country, but cannot have a beer. By the end of the war, there was such a discrepancy between beliefs surrounding this law, that individual states actually enforced their own, independent laws. Eventually the federal government’s involvement ordered all 50 states to endorse a legal drinking age of 21 due to accelerating rates of alcohol-related deaths. While the historical analysis of the drinking age demonstrates the prominent social and moral debate regarding appropriate laws, a neurobiological perspective provides compelling evidence for a necessary 21-year-old drinking age.
Adolescence is a critical time for brain maturation; the costs of drinking alcohol may interfere with the development of the pubescent brain, causing far more damage than to that of an adult brain. Through both animal and human studies over the past few decades, converging evidence has demonstrated long-term cognitive consequences of underage drinking, particularly excessive drinking of alcohol in adolescence.The link below is an NPR story that explains neurological findings that suggest that teen drinking may in fact cause irreversible brain damage.
Researchers used brain-imaging scans to examine the adolescent brain differences between individuals that excessively drank alcohol compared to those who didn’t. One longitudinal study examined twelve to fourteen-year-olds before and after they adopted drinking habits and behaviors. The participants were followed through adolescence, providing progressive brain scan data for individuals who developed binge-drinking habits compared to those who didn’t. Significant nerve tissue damage in the brains of those who excessively drank was apparent, such that negative behavioral consequences were associated with linked brain regions. Researchers examined brain white matter because it is involved in the relay of information between brain cells; adolescence is a critical period in which white matter continues to develop. The image below shows localized regions in which the integrity of the brain’s white matter was significantly less in the teens that binge drank, compared to those who did not.
Another study used structural MRI to examine hippocampal volume among adolescents with alcohol use disorders. The hippocampus, which is involved in memory functioning, is a region that actively develops throughout adolescence. Manual tracing of bilateral hippocampi were performed on MRI images of 14 adolescences with alcohol use disorder compared to 17 healthy individuals. The results showed that teens with the disorder had significantly reduced left hippocampal volume than healthy individuals (Nagel et al., 2005).
Together, these findings show that adolescent alcohol use is associated with neuroanatomical variation that negatively influences brain development and behavior. While it is argued by many that the drinking age should be lowered, the neurological consequences provide substantial evidence for the impairing affects and necessary laws endorsing alcohol prohibition among teens.
Nagel, B. J., Schweinsburg, A. D., Phan, V., & Tapert, S. F. (2005). Reduced hippocampal volume among adolescents with alcohol use disorders without psychiatric comorbidity. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 139, 181-190.