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WHY 21?

Alcohol and the Teen Brain

A person’s brain does not stop developing until his or her early to mid-20s and adding alcohol to the mix is a recipe for disaster.
The brain goes through dynamic change during adolescence, and alcohol can seriously damage long- and short-term growth processes. Frontal lobe development and the refinement of pathways and connections continue into the mid-20’s. Damage from alcohol at this time can be long-term and irreversible.  In addition, short-term or moderate drinking can impair learning and memory far more in youth than in adults. Adolescents need only drink half as much as adults to suffer the same negative effects.  
Here are some quick facts about alcohol use and the developing brain:

  • Alcohol impacts both behavior and brain function differently in adolescents and adults.
  • Adolescents are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of alcohol on learning and memory.
  • Alcohol affects the sleep cycle, resulting in impaired learning and memory as well as disrupted release of hormones necessary for growth and maturation.
  • Alcohol affects all parts of the brain, which affects coordination, emotional control, thinking, decision-making, hand-eye movement, speech, and memory.
  • Adolescent drinkers perform worse in school, are more likely to fall behind and have an increased risk of social problems, depression, suicidal thoughts and violence.
  • Binge drinking is extremely dangerous for adolescents given that their brain is especially vulnerable to alcohol-related damage.
  • People who begin drinking in their early teens are not only at greater risk for developing alcoholism sometime in their lives, they are also at greater risk for developing alcoholism more quickly and at younger ages, especially chronic, relapsing alcoholism.
The Developing Brain


From 12 years old to the mid 20s—the years in which America’s youth are the most exposed to alcohol—three critical periods of development take place, each accompanied by a spurt of neural (dendrite) growth:

Level I Abstract Thinking
10-20 years old
Development of the ability to relate functions such as the ability to relate addition and subtraction and understand why they are opposites, and the ability to combine dissimilar social interactions and emotions such as combining honesty or dishonesty with kindness to explain the "social lie"

Level II Abstract Thinking
14-15 years
Development of the ability to understand how functions are alike and different such as how addition and division are alike and different, and the ability to combine complex thinking with social interactions and emotions such as combining judgment with directness, kindness and tact at the same time to offer constructive criticism

Level III Abstract Thinking

18-20 years
Development of the ability to hold several issues, events, circumstances, functions, characteristics, etc., in mind at the same time and compare and interrelate them
Anything that interferes with how the brain operates during these developmental periods can change the course of a person's mental, emotional, cognitive, and social development—and alter his or her opportunities for success.

Alcohol on the Brain


Exposure to substances that inhibit cell growth has some impact on the adult brain, but these same substances can have a devastating effect on the developing brain.

Random Havoc. Most drugs are predictable for they have specific receptors in the brain they will use, so the impact on the neural function in specific regions of the brain can be predicted. Alcohol, however, doesn't have a specific receptor in the brain. It selects receptors at random, acting on one receptor in one part of the brain and on a different one in another part of the brain. It is also random in its behavior in different brains, meaning it affects people differently.
Basically, alcohol chooses a receptor, combines with water molecules that form part of the receptors and changes the shape of the receptors so it can enter, virtually at will. That also means it is altering the brains processes "at-will."

Prankster. Alcohol plugs into the brain's massive network of switches that activate and deactivate neural functioning and turns brain cells on or off. It affects channels in the brain cell membranes that permit calcium and other chemicals to provide energy to electrically fire off messages to other cells. No other drug turns brain cells on and off at the rate alcohol does.
Interceptor. Alcohol seeps directly into neurons to prevent the messages that a neuron receives from being translated into instructions inside the cell.

Trickster. Alcohol combines with lipids (fat molecules) that form channels in the surfaces of brain cell membranes, temporarily changing their structure and function.

Thief. Alcohol reduces the level of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is known as the brain's peacekeeper, assisting in learning and problem solving and it enables our drive to live in harmony. It is connected to cells in every part of the brain—the only neurotransmitter that is. If not impeded by alcohol (or drugs that act on serotonin receptors), the brain receives gentle, rhythmic pulses of serotonin. One of its most important roles is to act as a brake on impulses for too much or too little can affect cognitive and emotional functioning. This why drinking teens often engage in foolish, irresponsible and dangerous activites.

Global Havoc. Alcohol affects most of the brain, compromising memory, abstract thinking, problem solving, attention and concentration. It also alters motivation, emotions, awareness, thinking, movement, breathing, consciousness and more.


Youth Task Force of Martha's Vineyard