A high percentage of underage drinkers consume alcohol on a binge basis. In other words, they’re not having a glass of wine with dinner – they’re trying to get drunk off anything they can get their hands on.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 4,750 kids in the United States take their first drink of alcohol a day. Perhaps even more alarming, is that children who consume alcohol before the age of 15 are five times more likely to abuse alcohol when they get older. According to a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, this is likely due to the fact that alcohol alters the way the brain is wired.
“We used to think that brain development was done by the time you’re a teenager. Now we know that’s not true. The brain keeps developing into a person’s 20s and even early 30s,” explains Lorena Siqueira, one of the researchers on the study.
The researchers came to this conclusion by conducting experiments on adolescent rats. They introduced alcohol to the rats at increasing rates. Later on, when the rats had reached maturity they examined the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning). It was found that the rats that had consumed alcohol during adolescence had hippocampuses that communicated abnormally with other parts of the brain.
Other studies have shown that alcohol consumption early on in life has a negative effect on the white matter in the brain. Teenagers who drank large amounts of alcohol have been found to lose more white matter. The white matter acts as a relay point with the brain’s gray matter and processes information. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for attention, concentration, self-control and making decisions, is also negatively affected by underage drinking.
Interestingly, the amount of alcohol that scientists consider “too much” for teenagers is surprisingly low. Children under the age of 12 who have had three alcoholic drinks are participating in binge drinking. Girls under the age of 17 who drink more than three drinks at a time are also considered to be binge drinking.