Does Alcohol Make You Dumb? How Underage Drinking Alters Your Brain


Even if you do your best to avoid underage drinking, you can still find yourself at a party or social gathering where alcohol is present. You may have noticed friends or classmates slurring their speech, acting differently, or doing crazy things after experimenting with alcohol. Maybe you’ve even tried alcohol yourself and made some questionable choices afterward. You may be wondering, “Does alcohol make you dumb?”

In the 2023 State of Underage Drinking in North Carolina survey, we asked middle and high school students what is likely to happen when people their age consume alcohol (they could select more than one response). 77.5% said that teens who drink “make bad or risky choices.” 65.9% responded that they “get sick.” 53.7% replied that teens who drink “get hurt,” and 47.7% said they “pass out.”

The truth is that alcohol has significant effects on the teenage brain that can cause you to make “dumb” decisions you wouldn’t make when sober. In an effort to overcome social anxiety and fit in with your classmates, drinking alcohol makes it far more likely that you’ll say or do something that makes you stand out in the worst possible way. Let’s look at how that happens.

Alcohol and the Teenage Brain

Your teenage brain is busy developing, but it won’t be fully mature until you’re around 25 years old. Because your frontal cortex is still maturing, you may already be more susceptible to peer pressure and making risky decisions. This is normal but something you should know about.

Adding alcohol to that equation only complicates things! Alcohol slows down brain function and interferes with the communication between neurotransmitters, leading to changes in mood, behavior, and thinking.

Short-Term Effects of Underage Drinking

The immediate impact of alcohol on the teenage brain can be significant, even when consumed in small amounts. Here are some facts about the short-term impacts of alcohol that you need to understand:

  • Alcohol strongly affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the part responsible for impulse control, decision-making, and judgment. Underage drinking can lower your inhibitions and cause you to be impulsive and make poor decisions.
  • Underage drinking can also lead to mood swings, irrational behavior, and exaggerated emotional responses. That’s because alcohol impacts the brain’s limbic system, which regulates emotions.
  • Alcohol reduces “social anxiety” more in adolescents than in adults. Some teens drink to try and feel more comfortable or fit in with their peers. Unfortunately, alcohol can cause them to do embarrassing things, which may cause them to feel even more socially isolated than ever.
  • Adolescents feel less sedated by alcohol than adults do. This makes them more susceptible to binge drinking (consuming multiple drinks in a short amount of time).
  • Teens who binge drink are more likely to get into fights or have accidents. They may have blackouts or engage in risky behaviors, such as driving after consuming alcohol.

Long-Term Effects of Underage Drinking

As mentioned earlier, the adolescent years are a critical period for brain growth. Exposing the teen brain to alcohol can interfere with its normal development and lead to these longer-term issues:

  • Underage drinking inhibits the process of the hippocampus forming new cells.
  • Binge drinking in adolescence can alter brain development and function. It can impair memory, problem-solving skills, and the ability to pay attention. A decline in these abilities can impact academic performance and future success.
  • Chronic alcohol use can depress the immune system, making the body more vulnerable to illness and injury.
  • Underage drinking may lead to anxiety, depression, and an increased risk of suicide for some people.
  • Early alcohol use can “wire” the brain for alcohol dependence or other substance use disorders in the future.
  • In North Carolina, DWI (driving while intoxicated) convictions are permanent and will stay on your record forever. Some employers won’t hire people with DWIs.

Be Smart About Your Future

Does alcohol make you dumb? As you can see from the facts above, underage drinking can certainly make teenagers look and feel that way. Even so, many are tempted to drink. Just remember, the decisions you make today could harm your health, happiness, and future potential.

If you feel like alcohol is making you dumb, or you’re worried about a friend who’s making poor decisions because of alcohol, now is a good time to Start the Conversation with a parent, teacher, or other trusted adult. You’ll be glad you did — and so will they!