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Young drinkers at risk of brain damage

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Two decades of comprehensive research has revealed that the dangers of underage drinking go far beyond the increased risk of injury or death.

In addition to being a significant factor in the four leading causes of teen deaths, new data suggests that alcohol consumption by youth can cause irreparable brain damage and an increased likelihood for developing alcoholism later in life, according to researchers at Duke University School of Medicine.

Not long ago, neuroscientists believed that the human brain finished developing in early childhood. By age 6, a childís brain has already achieved 95 percent of its adult structure; however, scientists have now discovered a second period of rapid brain development that stretches from preadolescence through the mid-20s.

While many believed that adolescents can easily recover from using alcohol because their bodies are more resilient, studies reveal that the opposite is true. Although most teens must consume more alcohol than adults to impair motor coordination and to feel its sedative affects, it only takes half as much alcohol to damage their brains. This is particularly dangerous because teens are far more likely to drink more and longer, thereby increasing their risks for cognitive impairment and brain damage.

The damage is physically detectable. A study at the University of Pittsburg Medical Center found that the hippocampus, the area of the brain that handles many types of memory and learning functions, is 10 percent smaller in teen drinkers compared to that of their non-drinking counterparts.

The hippocampus, along with the prefrontal area, which plays an important role in forming adult personality and governs self-control, logic and judgment, are the two areas of the brain that undergo the most dramatic changes in adolescence. In short, teenagersí brains are being remodeled just as they are beginning to encounter more and more adult situations.

Youth who drink can have a significant reduction in learning and memory and frequent drinkers may never be able to catch up in adulthood. The damage can be long-term and irreversible and youth who binge drink (5 or more drinks) once a week or increase their drinking from age 18 to 24 may have problems attaining the goals of adulthood -- marriage, educational attainment, employment and financial independence.

Addition research has found that the physiological nature of the teenage brain, along with an adolescentís attraction to trying new experiences, makes teen drinkers especially vulnerable to addiction. Studies show that teens who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to become alcoholics.


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