UCSD researchers recently conducted a study analyzing how alcohol affects the teenage brain, including its impact on test performance. Their findings were published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Lead author, Professor Susan Tapert, told the UCSD Guardian that unlike previous research on this topic, this study observed a bigger pool of subjects for a longer period of time.
“This study was a little bit larger than previous studies since it started out with 130 adolescents before they had tried any alcohol and followed them over several years,” Tapert said.
Over time, some of those adolescents started to experiment with alcohol, and some even became heavy drinkers.
Tapert also mentioned that the teenage brain is still developing and that alcohol can affect the development process.
“Adolescent brains are still developing even into their early 20s, and alcohol can harm how the brain develops,” Tapert said.
Tapert further elaborated about the maturational developments of the teenage brain in an interview with NPR.
“First of all, the adolescent brain is still undergoing several maturational processes that render it more vulnerable to some of the effects of substances,” Tapert said.
The team did not find any gender differences in terms of brain structure from the results. However, Tapert did note that there were several gender differences in terms of how alcohol affected boys and girls when performing tests.
“Girls went downhill on visual spatial tests, whereas boys went downhill on attentive abilities,” Tapert said.
Tapert further specified how alcohol affected girls in an interview with NPR.
“For girls who had been engaging in heavy drinking during adolescence, it looks like they’re performing more poorly on tests of spatial functioning, which links to mathematics, engineering kinds of functions,” Tapert said.
Tapert’s team also discovered how alcohol affects the teenage male brain.
“For boys who engaged in binge drinking during adolescence, we see poor performance on tests of attention — so being able to focus on something that might be somewhat boring, for a sustained period of time,” Tapert said to NPR. “The magnitude of the difference is 10 percent. I like to think of it as the difference between an A and a B.”
Although Tapert did note that they need to perform more research regarding how it affected the teenage brain, the study did find some areas affected by binge drinking.
“Teens who frequently drank performed poorly on thinking and memory tests,” Tapert said. “Areas of white matter and grey matter also decreased as well.”
Aaron White, an assistant research professor of psychiatry at Duke University, also agreed that teenage drinking impairs cognitive function.
“There is no doubt about it now: There are long-term cognitive consequences to excessive drinking of alcohol in adolescence,” White said in an interview with the New York Times. “We definitely didn’t know five or 10 years ago that alcohol affected the teen brain differently. Now there’s a sense of urgency. It’s the same place we were in when everyone realized what a bad thing it was for pregnant women to drink alcohol.”
Scott Swartzwelder, a neuropsychologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Durham, N.C., also explained how alcohol harms the teenage mind.
“Teenagers can drink far more than adults before they get sleepy enough to stop, but along the way they’re impairing their cognitive functions much more powerfully,” Swartzwelder told the New York Times.