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Alcohol Misuse During Teenage Years Damages The Brain

Update Date: Dec 19, 2012 08:57 AM EST

Memories of adolescence don't fade away. Even incidents and events we encounter during our teenage impact our personality and define who we turn into as adults. But then it seems it is not just the events we encounter, but even the beverages we take during adolescence that stay with us for a lifetime.

According to a new study, misusing and over-indulgence in alcohol in young people causes significant changes in their brain function and structure.

"Young people are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of alcohol misuse," said Dr. Hermens from the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Research Institute in the journal Cortex, who reviewed a few findings before concluding his study.

Many people start drinking during their teen years. Unlike adults, adolescents drink on a lesser number of occasions, but they tend to drink too much every time they do, a practice which is more popularly known as binge drinking.

According to the report, the first signs of the brain damage caused by alcohol misuse are visual, learning, memory and executive function impairments.

The hippocampus and frontal structures of the brain are responsible for the functioning of these areas, and it is not fully developed until we turn 25. Also, alcohol misuse could damage the brain structurally, and that may include shrinking of the brain and also significant changes to the white matter.

Dr. Hermens says that brain damage caused by alcohol misuse could be either due to a genetic or environmental predisposition or because of ongoing misuse. But whichever reason it is, there is no doubt that the more frequent the alcohol misuse, the greater the damage and the less likely the brain is to recover from that damage.

"When the toxicity of alcohol stops your brain from laying down new memories, you experience a blackout," said Dr. Hermens.

However, pushing the ideal drinking age further is not the answer. Even though the legal drinking age is 18 years, three years earlier than in the U.S., the age of first use is the same between the two countries.

Another key factor affecting young people who drink is mental health, "poor mental health more than doubles a young person's risk of alcohol and other substance misuse," says Dr. Hermens.

According to Dr. Hermens, the solution lies in education, treatment and prevention.

Dr. Hermens  along with his team have been working with NSW Health to prepare a set of guidelines for health carers to identify and respond to early stages of brain impairment in young people due to alcohol misuse. They are also presently working on educational charts that would be helpful in informing youngsters about the risks of irresponsible drinking.

"More work needs to be done in this area. Excessive alcohol use accounts for 4 percent of the global burden of disease. We would save a lot of money and improve the quality of life for millions of people if we could prevent the mental and physical problems associated with alcohol misuse," said Dr. Hermens.

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