Alcohol and the Teen Brain

Brain Development

The human brain is not fully developed at birth but instead continues to develop until the mid-twenties, and alcohol harms a teen's still-developing brain. It can negatively affect the good judgment and impulse-control part of the brain and damage the memory and learning area. Drinking alcohol before the brain is fully developed also significantly increases the risk of alcohol addiction, raises the risk of mental illness, and contributes to anti-social behavior.


The brain goes through dynamic change during adolescence (ages 12- 21), and alcohol can seriously damage long- and short-term growth processes. The American Medical Association reports that teen drinkers are most susceptible to damaging two key brain areas that are changing dramatically:

  • The hippocampus (deep inside the brain) handles many types of memory and learning. It suffers from the worst alcohol-related brain damage in teens. Those who had been drinking more and for longer had significantly smaller hippocampi (10 percent). In addition, short-term or moderate drinking impairs learning and memory far more in youth than adults. Adolescents need only drink half as much to suffer the same negative effects.
  • The prefrontal lobe (behind the forehead) often called the CEO of the brain, is responsible for good judgment, planning, decision making and impulse control. Adolescent drinking can cause severe changes in this area and others that play an important role in forming adult personality and behavior. Damage from alcohol during adolescence can be long-term and irreversible.


Brain imaging shows that there is less activity in the brain of a 15-year-old heavy drinker than there is in a 15-year-old non-drinker.
Brain imaging from a study by Dr. Susan Tapert, University of California - San Diego; study funded by NIAAA and NIDA.



Kids who begin drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after age 21. The highest rate of alcoholism of any age group is 18- to 20-year-olds.


The brain is "wired" to reward positive actions (those that benefit the human race or contribute to the survival of the species) with feelings of pleasure so that we’ll want to repeat them. These can range from an intense emotional "high" to a happy sense of satisfaction. We remember pleasure from dopamine, a "feel good" brain chemical.

Photo depicts an unhappy teenage girl. Alcohol tricks the brain's pleasure-reward system by stimulating the production of dopamine – the feelings of pleasure result from an introduced chemical instead of a real experience. Because the teen brain produces an abundance of dopamine (compared to an adult brain), it can rapidly go from liking, to wanting, to needing alcohol, thus programming it for alcoholism.


Because heavy drinking can damage the pleasure-reward system, after a while it takes more and more alcohol to create the same amount of pleasure, resulting in addiction. There are about 16 million alcoholics in the United States and about one-fourth are teens.



  1. Harmful Consequences of Alcohol Use on the Brains of Children, Adolescents, and College Students) at

  2. Alcohol and the Adolescent Brain – Human Studies from



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