I'm sure you've heard that abusing alcohol hurts your health. But how many years of drinking do you think it takes to visibly affect your brain? Ten years? Twenty?
It turns out that it doesn't take that long at all—in fact, scientists can already see changes in the brains of teenagers who drink.
In a new research study, Professor Susan Tapert of the University of California at San Diego used an imaging machine called an MRI to scan the brains of teens who binge drink—defined as drinking 4 or 5 (or more) drinks in a couple of hours. Dr. Tapert found that the "white matter" in their brains—the part that transmits signals, like a television cable or a computer USB cord—was abnormal when compared with the white matter of teens who don't binge drink. Transmitting signals is a big part of what the brain does, so affecting the white matter in this way could also affect thinking, learning, and memory.
The really scary part is that these teens weren't alcoholics, and they didn't drink every day. All they did (to be considered "binge drinkers") was drink at least four (for women) or five (for men) drinks in one sitting, at least one time during the previous three months.
How could it be possible for just a few sessions of heavy drinking to affect the white matter of the brain? Well, science has shown that alcohol can poison brain cells and can alter the brain's white matter in adult alcoholics. Dr. Tapert thinks that teenagers' brains are even more susceptible this way. She says, "because the brain is still developing during adolescence, there has been concern that it may be more vulnerable to high doses of alcohol."
Many questions still remain, including how long it takes before these changes occur, and how much they affect the function of the brain. To figure this out, scientists would have to look at the binge drinkers' brains before and after they started drinking. That way, they can tell if the differences might have already been there before the teens started drinking. It's possible that having abnormal white matter in the brain somehow increases the chance of being a binge drinker. In order to answer that question, Dr. Tapert says they need to do longer studies that follow teens' brain growth over time.
The bottom line? If you're a teen, drinking to the point of getting drunk could damage the white matter of your brain—even if you do it only once in a while.
Find out more through the following resources:
- SAMHSA Fact Sheet on Binge Drinking
- NIH Fact Sheet on Underage Drinking (PDF, 305 KB)
- USCD News Release: Binge Drinking May Hamper Information Relay System in Teen Brain
- Dr. Tapert's Study: Altered White Matter Integrity in Adolescent Binge Drinkers
- NIAAA's Rethinking Drinking Web page
Alcohol companies have tapped into a growing market to introduce underage drinkers to their products, on the basis that kids who acquire a taste for alcoholic drinks early are more likely to get hooked. While it is still illegal for teens to purchase them, “alcopops,” are flavored beer and vodka drinks that contain caffeine, juices, and other flavors. These drinks often sport names like Moonshot, JungleJoose, and Bacardi Breezer Watermelon, to fool you into believing they are harmless flavored drinks.
But Drinker Beware…
Alcopops may contain 4-7% alcohol or more, higher than the average can of beer containing a little over 3% alcohol content. Alcohol is a depressant, and so can make you tired and slow your brain and reaction time. That affects your ability to make decisions and to act or think properly—it also makes you thirsty, so you keep drinking. Now throw in a strong jolt of caffeine, such as you find in typical energy drinks. While the alcohol in alcopops tends to make you sleepy, the caffeine in them keeps you feeling “up.” Sugar, the major ingredient in many juice drinks and flavorings, also stimulates your brain to give you a short-term energy surge. Now confused from the caffeine, alcohol, and sugar mix, your brain gets tricked in sometimes lethal ways because these drinks don’t taste like alcohol and make you feel less intoxicated than alcohol alone. This leaves you even less aware of how much you’ve consumed and more likely to binge drink.
What’s the Big Deal?
The big deal here is that combining a depressant (alcohol) with stimulants (caffeine and sugar) sends mixed signals to your brain, which can have long-term consequences. So digest the facts before you pop a top: drinking alcohol—including alcopops—can be quite dangerous.
St. Patrick’s Day, once a religious holiday that celebrated the patron saint of Ireland, has become a day for revelry and partying. In fact, it has become one of the biggest drinking days of the year.
Binge drinking—sucking down 4 or 5 drinks within about 2 hours—seems to be encouraged, with many bars hosting day-long parties and serving green beer and Irish whiskey.
Binge Drinking: What’s the Harm?
While downing pints of green beer may be a St. Patrick’s Day tradition for some, it’s really not a good one for your brain. Research shows that binge drinking damages the brain, even if you do it only once in a while. Young people are at special risk, since their brains are still developing—growing and making new connections until their mid-20s.
Binge drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning and also affects the frontal cortex, an area involved with judgment, thinking, memory, and feeling.
Drinking and Driving Is Never Okay
Binge drinking also can have serious consequences after the party’s over. If you’re driving under the influence, or riding with someone who’s drunk, you’ll need a ton of “Irish luck” to get home safely.
St. Patrick’s Day is one of the deadliest on the road. More than 1 in 3 drivers involved in fatal crashes have a blood alcohol concentration over the legal limit—and of course, no amount of alcohol is legal for those under age 21.
In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started a program with the slogan, “Kiss Me, I’m Sober,” to keep “buzzed” drivers off the road on St. Patrick’s Day. The first and most important step is to choose a designated driver who will not drink alcohol during the festivities.
St. Patrick’s Day is meant for light-hearted fun, and you don’t have to drink alcohol to enjoy it. What are some ideas for celebrating the greenest holiday without drinking?
Many of the movies teens like the most have this in common: A group of young people go to parties, binge drink, get in trouble, or narrowly escape—all in the name of comedy. Hugely successful movies like the American Pie series, 2007’s Superbad, and the recent Project X all follow this formula.
And it’s not just “party movies” that highlight teen drinking. Even Harry Potter is not immune to controversy when it comes to alcohol.
Many different factors may influence teens’ decisions to drink alcohol—like whether their friends do—but a recent study found that watching a lot of movies that feature alcohol actually doubles the chances that young teens will start drinking and increases the chances that they will move on to binge drinking as well.
On Screen vs. Reality
Most movies centered around teen partying and drinking glamorize the party scene, making it seem like the craziest, most epic stuff will happen. On screen, it becomes a memorable adventure from which you return home safely with the story of a lifetime.
Real life is different. Underage drinking, and especially binge drinking, is not glamorous or funny. It’s about doing something stupid and embarrassing yourself in front of your friends. It’s about throwing up in someone’s car on the way home and having a massive hangover the next morning. Even worse, it’s about getting alcohol poisoning and making dangerous decisions like driving drunk.
Alcohol Featured on Purpose
Teens should always be aware of why certain things may be happening on TV or in the movies and become “media-savvy.”
The next time you see alcohol on screen, ask yourself why the movie makers put it there. Are they trying to make you laugh? Does the situation make it seem “cool” and like “everybody’s doing it”?
Does seeing actors drinking alcohol on screen make you more likely to try it? Do you feel the same way if one of the characters smokes cigarettes?
Learn some of the things you should think about when you watch TV or movies.