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Alcohol and the Teenage Brain

Teen male lying on floor sitting around several empty bottles of alcohol  

Alcohol-related brain damage can occur in a variety of ways. While a single drink is unlikely to lead to any kind of permanent brain damage, persistent alcohol use or using large amounts of alcohol at one time can lead to temporary or permanent brain damage. Drinking alcohol damages teenagers’ brains even more than it does for adults because teenagers’ brains are still developing. The brain develops and rewires itself during childhood and the teenage years much more than it does as an adult. Someone who starts to misuse alcohol at a young age will be more likely to develop an addiction and have serious brain changes or lasting damage.

Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol activates gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors throughout the brain. These receptors create nerve impulses that lead to sedation and relaxation. With a single drink, the effects of alcohol on GABA receptors is temporary and only lasts until the alcohol is metabolized and eliminated from the body. When these receptors are artificially activated over and over again, they will start to change not only the way the brain sends impulses but the wiring that it uses. This change can lead to lasting effects that are harmful to the brain’s health.

Does Alcohol Cause Brain Damage?

It is indisputable that there are multiple ways in which alcohol can lead to brain damage. Alcohol has been shown to rewire the brain and lead to a decrease in cognitive function. Alcohol shrinks the brain, causing reduced growth of brain cells and smaller brain sizes for those who frequently use alcohol. Brain damage caused by alcohol is more common in those who have an alcohol use disorder and those who are heavy drinkers.

Types of Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

There are several ways that alcohol can lead to brain damage. These forms of brain damage may be temporary or permanent, depending upon the type of brain damage.

Injuries while intoxicated are not a form of alcohol-related brain damage that is often considered, but 35% to 81% of traumatic brain injuries occur while someone is intoxicated, and 42% of those who get a traumatic brain injury used alcohol heavily before the injury. This form of brain damage is unable to be reversed and can lead to life-long effects. Teens may be especially susceptible to traumatic brain injuries caused by alcohol intoxication, as they are more likely to engage in risky activities and have poorer judgment than adults.

Alcohol can also lead to brain damage simply by persistently altering the GABA receptors in the brain, causing temporary or permanent rewiring that can be harmful over the long term. This effect can also lead to smaller brain volume and cognitive changes. Alcohol use during the teen years can be especially impactful on the brain, as it is still forming new connections and is more likely to be changed by alcohol use.

Alcohol can cause severe and permanent brain damage if used by someone who is pregnant. This condition is called fetal alcohol syndrome and causes babies to be born with smaller brains and decreased intelligence compared to other children of the same age. Fetal alcohol syndrome can also cause physical deformities.

One temporary form of alcohol-related brain damage is called hepatic encephalopathy and is caused by liver damage. The inflammation that alcohol can cause in the liver leads to a buildup of a chemical called ammonia. As ammonia levels increase, it can temporarily affect brain function and lead to confusion and other changes in brain function.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (Wet Brain)

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (informally known as “wet brain”) is a severe brain condition that is caused by low levels of thiamine (vitamin B1). Alcohol changes the body’s ability to store, make and absorb thiamine. This change causes a temporary and reversible condition called Wernicke’s encephalopathy that causes confusion and decreased coordination. Wernicke’s encephalopathy often leads to a more serious condition called Korsakoff’s psychosis, a permanent condition that damages multiple areas of the brain and leads to permanent coordination problems, memory problems and an inability to learn new things and form new memories.

How Much Alcohol Causes Brain Damage?

A single drink of alcohol can lead to decreased coordination, poor judgment, and decreased inhibition. This can create the risk of having a traumatic brain injury, and even moderate alcohol use can increase the risk of this type of brain damage in teens.

The disruption in brain development that can occur in teens typically requires alcohol use over longer periods, but can also occur with binge drinking. Other types of alcohol-related brain damage typically require heavy alcohol use over a longer amount of time and are unlikely to occur in teenagers. While it is rare, these other types of alcohol-related brain damage may still occur. Heavy alcohol use by teens should always be avoided.

Signs of Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

The signs of alcohol-related brain damage vary based on the type of brain damage that occurs. While these signs can vary, common signs of alcohol-related brain damage include:

  • Confusion
  • Problems communicating
  • Slurred speech
  • Decreased muscle coordination
  • Problems walking
  • Difficulty in creating new memories
  • Difficulty learning
  • Difficulty remembering things
  • Agitation
  • Blurred vision
  • Unequal pupil size
  • Decreased or no responsiveness

These signs may be present while intoxicated, but if they persist after the effects of alcohol should have worn off, it may indicate alcohol-related brain damage. An alcohol-related brain damage diagnosis should only be made by a doctor. Someone who thinks they or someone they know may have any form of brain damage should seek professional help from a doctor.

Is Alcohol-Related Brain Damage Reversible?

There is research that indicates that the brain damage caused by alcohol can be reversed in some cases. This recovery depends highly upon the type of brain damage that occurs. Some reversible types of brain damage, such as hepatic encephalopathy, may be fully reversed, while others, like traumatic brain injury, cannot be cured.

Stopping alcohol use and maintaining sobriety will almost always help to reduce brain damage that would otherwise occur in the future and will provide the best possible chance of recovery, especially in teenagers or young adults. Finding out if a specific case of alcohol-related brain damage is permanent will require an assessment of that particular case by a doctor.

Treatment for Alcohol-Related Brain Damage

Understanding how to repair brain damage from alcohol will require both a specific treatment plan by a medical doctor and a plan to stop using alcohol that is made using the help of an addiction recovery specialist. The medical doctor can provide information about how to reverse the effects of alcohol on the brain and the damage that it causes, while an addiction recovery specialist will help to achieve and maintain lasting sobriety.

If you are a teenager, or the parent of a teenager, who is struggling with alcohol use, call Next Generation Village to speak to a representative about how professional addiction treatment can help. Take the first step toward a healthier future, reach out today.

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