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Alcohol Hits Teen Brains Hard

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

A recent report issued by the National Academy of Sciences
(NAS) contains disturbing news about the dangers of underage
drinking. The national report confirms a large amount of
earlier research linking alcohol use with damage to the
adolescent brain.

Aaron White, Ph.D., assistant research professor in the
department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke
University Medical Center, says the report confirms just how
hazardous alcohol is to a young person's brain.

"There's an incredible amount of development taking place in
the brain during the teen-age years," he says. "Because of
this, it's not surprising that alcohol and perhaps other drugs
affect the teenage brain differently than the adult brain."

White, who is also a resident psychologist at the Durham,
N.C., Veterans Administration Medical Center, says alcohol
affects several different parts of a young person's brain.

"We're just beginning to figure this out," he says. "We've
known for a long time that in adults who abuse alcohol, there
is damage throughout the brain, including an area called the
frontal lobes, which are critically involved in planning,
decision-making, impulse control, voluntary motor behavior and
language.

"We think there is similar damage taking place in
adolescents, but the extent of the damage seems to be greater
than in older drinkers. In teen-agers, these regions get hit
very hard by alcohol."

White adds, "We also have some evidence that a structure
called the hippocampus, which plays a critical role in memory
formation, also suffers some damage as a result of alcohol
abuse during adolescence. Unfortunately, the changes that are
taking place in the hippocampus during the teen-age years make
it more sensitive to alcohol."

The NAS report suggests that teen-agers' heavy alcohol use
could possibly do long-term, or even permanent, damage, says
White.

"If we look at the cognitive abilities of teen-agers who are
in drug and alcohol treatment, for at least three weeks after
an adolescent's last drink, they show memory impairments and
other cognitive deficits."

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