In Brief

Several studies released this year suggest teen drinking may cause more neurological damage than was previously thought. Contrary to the notion that the brain is fully developed by age 16 or 17, the new studies have found that significant development happens until the age of 21 and heavy drinking by teen-agers may inhibit that development.

The recent research suggests that teens who binge drink may do damage to their memory and learning abilities by severely hampering the development of the hippocampus. A survey by the Harvard School of Public Health has found that 44 percent of college students are binge drinkers and 74 percent say they binged in high school.

Sandra Brown, PhD, of the VA Medical Center and the University of California, San Diego, conducted the first of these studies. Her work compared alcohol-dependent and non-dependent adolescents by measuring memory and other cognitive functions. Alcohol-dependent teens showed impaired memory, altered perceptions of spatial relationships and verbal skill deficits.

Research by Bridget F. Grant, PhD, of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), adds to that finding, concluding that heavy drinking by teens is often accompanied by tobacco and drug use, which can facilitate the destruction of brain cells.

A third study by Brown and Susan Tapert, PhD, of the University of California San Diego, compared magnetic resonance images (MRIs) of 10 healthy women to 10 women who were adolescent binge drinkers and found the brain processes of former alcoholics to be "sluggish" when subjects were asked to recall the location of various objects.

These studies indicate that teen binge drinking can lead to poor performance in school, difficulty in simple math or the inability to read a map. They also dispel the notion that a person could sustain heavy drinking for several years before causing neurological damage. Adolescent alcohol abuse and dependence may prove to be more damaging than alcoholism in adulthood by killing brain cells in the hippocampus, blocking brain receptors that form memories and causing protracted neurological impairments, the researchers say.

"At the very least, the findings should raise a red flag for parents and policy-makers," says Brown. "Kids with alcohol problems should be able to receive help as quickly as possible. If further research does prove brain damage from heavy drinking, the injury might be reversed."

It is noteworthy that Tapert, Brown and Grant agree that alcohol abusers often use illicit drugs as well, and the exact effects of a drug on the physical development of the brain in adolescence is still unknown.

These studies have spurred the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Governors' spouses and the NIAAA to form the "Leadership to keep children alcohol-free" initiative. Their hope is to encourage new research about alcohol's exact effects and to create more effective treatment and prevention programs. To learn about further developments, contact: