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Binge Drinking on Teen Brain Development

Binge drinking is one form of problem drinking that can cause serious problems, including addiction to alcohol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in six adults in the United States binge drinks at least four times per month, or about once a week, and drinks roughly eight servings of alcohol per binge. This practice is risky at any age, but it can cause permanent damage to the brain if a person binge drinks during adolescence and young adulthood.

Binge Drinking Causes Damage to the Brain and Body

To understand binge drinking, it is important to understand what a serving of alcohol is and how the body processes alcohol. Typical servings of alcohol include:

  • One 12-ounce beer, the average size of a bottle or can
  • One 5-ounce glass of wine
  • One 1.5-ounce shot of liquor, alone or in a cocktail

The liver can process about one serving of alcohol per hour. For example, having one glass of wine with dinner will not significantly raise a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC). However, consuming two servings of alcohol in one hour begins to raise BAC. Consuming four (for women) or five (for men) servings of alcohol in a two-hour period raises BAC to 0.08 percent, the legal limit at which it is no longer safe for a person to drive in the US. They are considered too intoxicated.

Binge drinking is defined as drinking four or five servings of alcohol in a two-hour period, but studies have shown that, typically, people who binge drink consume far more alcohol during binges. This is extremely dangerous because it increases the risk of acute problems, like blackouts, physical injury from accidents or falls, and alcohol poisoning. Regular binge drinking can also cause chronic health problems, like liver failure and an increased risk for cancer.

Adolescents and young adults are the most likely to binge drink, and they drink a lot of alcohol in one binge. For these age groups, brain development has not finished, so consuming a lot of alcohol means that they can struggle with mental, behavioral, and brain structure development problems. The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) found that nearly 21 percent of high school students binge drank; among young adults ages 18-24, 26 percent binge drank. The CDC also found that, although it is illegal to consume alcohol under the age of 21 in the US, adolescents and young adults between the ages of 12 and 20 consume 11 percent of all the alcohol in the country; and 90 percent of that alcohol consumption occurs during binges.

Although alcohol abuse among high school students was found to have declined between 1991 and 2015, one in six high schoolers still engages in binge drinking, which puts their bodies and brains at risk for long-term damage.

Binge Drinking Is Especially Harmful in Adolescence

Brain development continues until age 25, according to mental health professionals, but most brain growth occurs during adolescence, between ages 12 and 17. Abusing alcohol during this time is very dangerous because it can lead to permanent changes, making mental illness more likely and cognition more difficult.

A study conducted at the University of Massachusetts and published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2014 found that physical damage to neurons and brain structures caused by binge drinking in adolescence persisted well into adulthood. The U of M study found that changes to the prefrontal cortex – one of the last brain regions to completely mature – caused lasting harm.

Early onset of drinking, including binge drinking, has been linked to long-term alcohol abuse in adults. Impulsivity, memory problems, and higher rates of alcohol use disorder may be tied to these changes in the prefrontal cortex caused by adolescent binge drinking. Both the prefrontal cortex and the cerebral areas of the brain were found to be thinner and have less volume compared to teenagers who did not drink. These teens also showed less white matter development. These problems could lead to struggles in adulthood with inhibiting responses or controlling impulses, remembering events, verbal learning and memory, and making healthy decisions, especially those that involve short-term versus long-term rewards.

The changes to impulse control, memory, and long-term reward motivation put teen binge drinkers at a higher risk for ongoing problem drinking and developing an alcohol use disorder.

Another study, published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, found that adolescent brains exposed to periods of binge drinking showed structural and functional abnormalities in the hippocampus, an area of the brain tied to memory and learning. The neurons in the hippocampal region were also more vulnerable to additional damage to the brain, which could occur via head trauma, disease, or further alcohol abuse.

Persistent changes to the brain, caused by binge drinking in adolescence, can lead to behavioral struggles, problems maintaining work, acquiring an education, maintaining stable relationships, and controlling cravings or impulses for alcohol or other drugs. The brain changes that put the adolescent at risk for ongoing alcohol abuse can cascade into chronic health problems later in life and an average of 30 lost years of life per problem drinker. Adolescents who struggle with problem drinking need support from parents or guardians, their school, and other community networks to get treatment as soon as possible.