News | Published April 30, 2014 | Written by Timothy Derstine, MD, medical director, behavioral health services, Mount Nittany Medical Center

Alcohol Awareness Month – Alcohol Use in Youth and the Effect on Behavioral Health

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, by the time teenagers have reached grade 12, almost 71 percent had used alcohol at least once, while 41.2 percent had consumed alcohol in the past month. The statistics make it imperative that people are aware of the correlation between alcohol use and behavioral health in teens.

Although many people are familiar with the negative effects of alcohol use, including an increased risk of accidents, addiction, cancer and liver damage, many are unaware that there is a strong incidence of behavioral health issues in those who drink at a young age.

Because the brain continues to develop until the age of 25, consumption of alcohol during the adolescent years can affect brain development and have long-term effects. One study showed that the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory and learning, of 14- to 21-year-olds who drank was on average 10 percent smaller than those who abstained from alcohol.

In addition, alcohol has toxic effects on the myelination process, the “insulating” of the nerve fibers. Because myelination helps to improve the transmission of nerve impulses throughout the nervous system, disruption of this process can lead to cognitive deficits. Abnormalities in the size of the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain highly involved in reasoning and impulse control, have been found in adolescents who use alcohol.

The physical effects of alcohol on the developing brain can alter the structure and neurochemical communication of the brain, leading to cognitive impairments and other brain disorders. In addition, with repeated alcohol use, the brain’s natural capacity to produce dopamine, the pleasure-producing chemistry of the brain, reduces which can lead to feelings of depression, anger, boredom, anxiety and frustration.

Underage drinking is a national issue, one with potentially serious consequences on the mind and body. However, prevention starts in the home by establishing open communication and clear expectations around the avoidance of alcohol use. Because children are exposed to alcohol at young ages, it’s important to start the conversation early.