It wasn’t uncommon for today’s Millennial and Gen X parents to have parents who looked the other way when it came to underage drinking. These now grandparents probably had heard that using alcohol would make their kids more likely to use other substances, and it significantly increased the chances of alcoholism as an adult. They had the attitude that they turned out fine, and their kids probably would too. Now, parents have the blessing and curse of access to so much more information, so it’s harder to turn a blind eye. Parents now should ask themselves, while you’ve heard about the risks, how much do you really know? And if you learned more, would your attitude toward underage drinking shift?
There are three periods in life when the brain undergoes major changes and is particularly susceptible to the effects of alcohol: beginning of life, beginning of aging and adolescence, and society has readily accepted the first two. If a pregnant mother consumes alcohol, it can damage a fetus’s developing brain, and then after the age of 65, alcohol can worsen naturally occurring brain decline. But adolescence is the one that requires more convincing.
During adolescence, or basically our second decade in life, the brain is especially sensitive to alcohol. During this period, the brain is growing and changing in crucial ways for a successful and healthy transition to adulthood. New connections among neurons are being formed while a significant number of existing connections are lost, and scientists speculate this process is sculpting the brain based on personal experiences during this time. In other words, it’s shaping who we are.
The prefrontal cortex undergoes extensive development through adolescence. This is the area in which planning, short-term memory, impulse control, rule learning, organization and decision-making all happen. GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, is found throughout the brain, particularly in the frontal lobe. Healthy adolescents 12-14 have lower levels of GABA in their frontal lobes, but by late adolescence, GABA receptors mature to adult levels, which is linked to improved cognitive control, better decision-making, and less impulsiveness. This study examined the lower frontal lobe GABA in subjects who were either binge or light drinkers through their adolescent period, and researchers discovered that these individuals had lower than average levels of GABA.
Perhaps most concerning is the growing evidence that this damage could be irreversible. One study compared young people who described themselves as heavy drinkers to non-drinkers, and the binge drinkers performed lower on thinking and memory tests. Interestingly, a significant gender differentiation emerged. Girls who had been binge drinkers scored lower on spatial functioning tests that incorporated mathematics and engineering, while the boys struggled more on attention span tests.
Today’s parents grew up in a society where drinking was a gamble; you probably wouldn’t get in trouble, you probably wouldn’t get hurt, and you probably wouldn’t get addicted. But now, we know that there are more risks. Alcohol is bad for developing brains, and there is extensive science to prove it. If yesteryear’s parents would have had this information, would they have been so willing to gamble?
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