Binge drinking as a teenager can damage the brain for LIFE

Thanks to one of the ladies over at the Sober Womens Awareness Network on Facebook for bringing this to my attention 🙂  It’s a Daily Wail headline hence the use of capitals to make their point.  It relates to binge drinking as a teenager and some new research that has shown that it can damage the brain for life by impacting on the regions affecting memory and learning and be associated with emotional immaturity.  This has long been known in the world of substance abuse as it pertains to cannabis use and the pruning of the neural networks and now evidence is mounting that as we suspected booze has the same effect.


A new study has shown that alcohol exposure during adolescence, before the brain is fully developed, can result in abnormalities that have enduring, detrimental effects on a person’s behaviour.  And scientists warn alcohol could also slow down emotional maturity.

Dr Mary-Louise Risher, at Duke University, said: ‘In the eyes of the law, once people reach the age of 18, they are considered adult.  But the brain continues to mature and refine all the way into the mid 20s.  It’s important for young people to know that when they drink heavily during this period of development, there could be changes occurring that have a lasting impact on memory and other cognitive functions.’

Researchers periodically exposed young rodents to a level of alcohol during adolescence that, in humans, would result in impairment, but not sedation.  Afterwards, the animals received no further exposure to alcohol, and grew into adulthood, which in rats occurred within 24 to 29 days.  Past research has shown that adolescent animals exposed to alcohol grow into adults that are much less adept at memory tasks than normal animals – even with no further alcohol exposure.

But until now, scientists have not known how these impairments manifest in the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.  Using small electrical stimuli applied to the hippocampus, researchers were able to measure a cellular mechanism, called long-term potentiation, or LTP.  This is the strengthening of brain synapses – the connections between brain cells, or neurons – as they become used to learning new tasks or recalling memories.  Learning occurs best when this synaptic activity is vigorous enough to build strong signal transmissions between neurons.  LTP is highest in the young, and effective learning is crucial for teenagers to acquire large amounts of new memory during the transition to adulthood.

The researchers said they expected to find abnormally diminished LTP in the adult rats that had been exposed to alcohol during their adolescence.  Surprisingly, though, LTP was actually hyperactive in these animals compared to the unexposed rodents.

‘At first blush, you would think the animals would be smarter,’ said Professor Scott Swartzwelder.  ‘But that’s the opposite of what we found.  And it actually does make sense, because if you produce too much LTP in one of these circuits, there is a period where you can’t produce any more.  The circuit is saturated, and the animal stops learning.  For learning to be efficient, your brain needs a delicate balance of excitation and inhibition – too much in either direction and the circuits do not work optimally.’ 

Importantly, Professor Swartzwelder, Dr Risher and their colleagues identified that the LTP abnormality was accompanied by a structural change in individual nerve cells.  The tiny protrusions from the branches of the cells, called dendritic spines, appeared lanky and spindly, suggesting immaturity.  Mature spines are shorter and look a bit like mushrooms, refining cell-to-cell communication.  Professor Swartzwelder, added: ‘Something happens during adolescent alcohol exposure that changes the way the hippocampus and other regions of the brain function and how the cells actually look – both the LTP and the dendritic spines have an immature appearance in adulthood.’  Dr Risher said this immature quality of the brain cells might be associated with behavioural immaturity.  ‘It’s quite possible that alcohol disrupts the maturation process, which can affect these cognitive function later on,’ she said.  ‘That’s something we are eager to explore in ongoing studies.’ 

The study was published today in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The aspect of this research I find so fascinating is the emotional maturity element.  I’ve long believed, as have many out here in the sober blogging world, that our emotional maturity stops developing from the age that we start drinking heavily to manage our emotions.  There has been no evidence of this to date but this is the closest we have got to acknowledging this as a real phenomenon with further research to look at this specifically being considered.  I would love for our anecdotal experience to be supported by solid evidence and research in the future!  What do you think?

Edited to add: 25th Jan 2016 More research findings:

How BEER damages the brains of teenagers: Alcohol ‘impairs spatial awareness and memory’

Researchers from McMaster University determined alcohol has a ‘serious impact’ on developing brains.  That impact largely occurs in the hippocampus – the region responsible for spatial navigation and memory function.  The study sheds new light on the effect alcohol has on young brains.  The team of researchers used the popular video game Minecraft to test the effect of alcohol on teenagers.

11 thoughts on “Binge drinking as a teenager can damage the brain for LIFE

  1. I agree completely about the emotional maturity. I feel like only recently I’ve evolved to the “emotional maturity” behavior shown in that graphic. xx

  2. I agree with Lori. I look at the Emotional Immaturity side of the chart relating to Emotions, Give & Take, and Stress and I see elements of myself before I stopped drinking. Nice to finally be maturing in my 50s! 🙂

    1. Hey Julie! Couldn’t agree with you more and it’s taken me till my mid 40’s too!! 🙂

  3. Fascinating research – would be great to see more on this. I am slightly horrified to see how much I am still on the “emotional immaturity” side of that graphic, in many areas. Had an emotionally wobbly weekend – all that stuff about being unable to take criticism, fearing change, anxious, attacking people when frustrated – that is me to a tee this weekend 🙁 Must be my lanky dendritic spines! This growing up business is hard 😉

    1. sending you huge hugs MTM and hoping you and your dendritic spines are feeling sturdier now… the next time I’m feeling low and someone asks me how I am, I’m going to tell them I’m having a few problems with the old dendritics 😉 xxx

    2. You are not alone MTM {big hug} and I’m sorry you’ve had a wobbly week-end. You see it now and that in itself is important growing up stuff!! Lanky dendrites indeed 🙂 xx

  4. my reaction to this is shame coupled with rage and deep concern.

    shame at what I did to myself in my late teens and early twenties. rage that alcohol is so casually accepted and that this type of drinking is still considered a ‘stage’, a rite of passage for our society. and deep concern as to how I can communicate this to my own teenagers 🙁 all of which are hugely painful feelings.

    in fact I’ve had to come back and read this post again as it is difficult to do so through the gaps in my fingers….

    my response is an overwhelming box ticking in the left hand column of the table… but partly in a ‘I used to do that a lot more than I do now’ sort of way. and I’ve achieved that, even partly, over the last 19 months, in a combination of sobriety, formal therapy, and this blogging community which I see more and more as a group therapy space.

    ergo it is possible to change the way that we think – and this is where I find neuroplasticity so reassuring – otherwise the idea that I have completely fucked over my brain and that it’s irreversible is so depressing that it gives me the perfect rationalisation of why I might as well drink again.

    1. Prim – we didn’t know when we were teenagers/twenty-somethings that this would be the research of the future so go easier on your younger self {big hug} And as you say we know from neuroplasticity studies that nothing is set in stone but yes it is better if we can persuade our own children to pass on this particular rite of passage!! I shall be sharing the research with mine when they are old enough to understand and if we aren’t role-modelling excessive drinking (or any drinking in our cases) then that is a huge step forward. Plus through our hard work now on our own emotional maturity they will learn better skills in that dept too and I agree that this community is like a group therapy space 🙂 xx

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