Use Your Head

Get The Facts About Alcohol & The Teenage Brain

Alcohol affects the adolescent brain differently than it affects the adult brain — because the human brain isn’t fully developed until about age 25.


The prefrontal cortex, often called the control center of the brain, is responsible for judgment, behavior and impulse control. It’s one of the areas of the adolescent brain most affected by alcohol.  Even low levels of alcohol have a negative impact on planning, organizing, managing time, paying attention and inhibiting inappropriate behaviors. This is of particular concern during adolescence, a time when the frontal lobes of the brain are not fully developed and when many teens begin to misuse alcohol.  1


The cerebral cortex is where higher brain function occurs – things like memory, language and consciousness. The teenage brain seems to be less reactive than the adult brain to alcohol’s short-term effects (slurring words, losing balance or feeling sleepy). At the same time, adolescents appear to be particularly sensitive to the pleasurable effects of drinking, such as feeling more at ease in social situations, which may lead young people to drink more than adults.  2


The hippocampus is key for memory and learning. Some of the most serious alcohol-related brain damage during adolescence happens here. Alcohol can block a key receptor responsible for processing and storing memories; this effect is more pronounced in adolescents than in adults with fully developed brains. Adolescent brains are also much more sensitive to alcohol toxicity, and are more vulnerable to cell death. 3


The cerebellum controls balance, muscle coordination and contributes to memory formation. Drinking alcohol inhibits motor function and slows reaction time – which is why it’s so difficult and dangerous to drive after drinking.  4


The medulla controls vital functions such as breathing and the beating of the heart. When a person has been drinking heavily, it’s possible for these functions to become impaired. While this is true for people of all ages, it’s particularly dangerous for teenagers who, because they tend to not feel the negative effects of alcohol as much as adults, may tend to drink more alcohol in a shorter time.  5

Impulse Control

The hypothalamus plays an important part in how our bodies respond to stress by coordinating the release of hormones that prepare us for “flight or fight.”  This system, like many others is still developing during adolescence.  Alcohol suppresses normal hormonal responses to stress in adolescents (and adults), and heavy drinking during adolescence can lead to long-lasting changes in how this system responds to stress in adulthood.  There is even some suggestion from animal research that drinking during adolescence can lead to greater stress-induced drinking in adulthood.  6

Someone Has To Be The Adult

It’s the job of responsible adults in kids’ lives to help provide the restraint that adolescent brains often can’t. Studies show over and over that parental behavior and communication can delay the initiation of alcohol consumption. Both words and deeds matter.

Start The Conversation With Your Children

Underage drinking can "wire" the brain for alcoholism

Chances of becoming an alcoholic

Kids who begin drinking before age 15


Someone who waits until age 21

Drinking alcohol can cause a decrease in brain activity


These brain scans show functional activity levels in the brain of a healthy non-drinker (left), and a sober 21-year-old with a four-year history of heavy alcohol use (right). The “holes” indicate areas of reduced brain activity.
© Dr. Daniel Amen;

Fast Facts
Short-Term Impairment
Long-Term Consequences
  • The emotional areas of the brain mature before the frontal cortex — evident in the thrill-seeking, risky decision-making, and impulsiveness that define adolescence.
  • Due to the immaturity of the frontal cortex, adolescent brains respond more to both the promise of rewards and to threats (especially social threats) than adult brains, and they weigh immediate rewards as more valuable than future rewards.
  • This “brain imbalance” is why adolescents pay lots of attention to their peers, and why they are more likely to do something without considering the consequences.
  • Alcohol slows down brain activity, and the negative effect of alcohol lasts far longer in a teenagers’s brain than in an adult’s — up to two weeks.
  • If a teenager uses alcohol before his or her brain is fully developed, it can keep the good judgment and impulse-control part of the brain from properly developing.
  • Alcohol can also damage the memory and learning areas of the brain.

These are highlights from Alcohol & The Adolescent Brain: Immediate Impairment, Long-Term Consequences, a comprehensive report presented to the Governor’s Substance Abuse and Underage Drinking Prevention and Treatment Task Force in February 2016.

  • Adolescents are less sedated by alcohol than adults.
  • Alcohol reduces “social anxiety” even better in adolescents than adults.
  • These factors make adolescents more likely to binge drink (four to five or more drinks at a time) than adults.
  • Binge drinking in adolescents leads to more negative consequences than in adults, such as blackouts (loss of memory from the event), unplanned and unwanted sexual activity, fights, accidents and driving while intoxicated.
  • Alcohol affects learning more in adolescents, and also interferes with other “brain health” behaviors, undoing the benefits of good health habits.
  • Adolescent alcohol exposure causes a dramatic shutdown of the process by which the hippocampus forms new cells.
  • Adolescent alcohol use sets up a persistent increase in activation of brain signals that contribute to inflammation.
  • Binge levels of alcohol in adolescence can cause changes in brain development and brain function.
  • The younger someone starts, the greater the chances he or she will have alcohol use problems in their lifetime.
  • Alcohol can cause specific changes in the brain that could increase risk for alcohol-use problems.
  • NC Medical Society

Start The Conversation. Stop Underage Drinking.