Important Resource: Brain Development and Underage Drinking

by Guest Post on April 22, 2010

Thank you author and speaker Lisa Frederiksen of Breaking the Cycles for this regular series sharing her decades long experience of dealing with family alcoholism and alcohol abuse. Click here to see the rest of the series.

Breaking the Cycles at The Discovering Alcoholic

For anyone working to reduce underage drinking, one of the keys to helping coalitions, parents, and young people better understand the “reasons” is to share the new science — the science-based answers now possible due to new imaging technologies that allow neuroscientists and medical professionals to study the live human brain like never before.

Below you will find excerpts from a Fact Sheet by Jack O’Connell, State Superintendent of Public Schools, California Department of Education, issued in January 2009, titled, “The Adolescent Brain and Substance Use.” It is relatively short but has so much important, well-explained information for anyone whose life or career intersects with teens and alcohol use.

Recent research findings on brain development call the adolescent brain “a work in progress.”1 Contrary to earlier wisdom, the brain continues to develop until we reach our early twenties. The areas of the brain that are last to develop are those responsible for decision making, impulse control, learning, and memory. Because teen brains are not yet mature, teens are especially vulnerable to the harmful consequences of substance use.2


A Brief Explanation of Brain Development
Until recently, many believed that the human brain develops by the age of three and matures by around age ten. However, advanced brain imaging techniques now show that brain development is not completed until around age twenty-four.


Between the ages of six and twelve, the brain’s nerve cells that are responsible for thinking and information processing multiply and develop new communication pathways. After this growth in nerve cells, a process of “pruning” occurs in the early twenties, where connections between neurons that are not used die away, and those that are used remain—a “use it or lose it” process.3 At the same time, there is a thickening of the brain’s myelin (a white fatty material that covers parts of the nerve cell and makes transmission of nerve signals faster and more efficient).


Click here to download the PDF of this article and learn more about the timing of various brain regions and their functions, the role puberty plays and how alcohol can hijack the brain of an adolescent.

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