Beer Bong Brain

July 4, 2006

A recent article in the NYTimes compiles the latest research on teen drinking, and it paints a chilling picture.

Up till now, my fears for my own child’s future partying have centered around the classic situational dangers: driving drunk, having unprotected sex, drowning. In short, dangers that can be “contained” if the drinking is done in a safe place. One with a large bowl of condoms, perhaps. Well, forget that mirage.

Tests on rats, if they are applicable to us big monkeys, show that alcohol affects the adolescent brain differently than the adult brain.

“Clearly, something is changed in the brain by early alcohol exposure,” Dr. Swartzwelder said in an interview. “It’s a double-edged sword and both of the edges are bad.

“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.”

One study showed an alcohol bender causing twice as much damage to the frontal region of adolescent rat brains than adult rat brains. This region in humans is associated with the ability to focus, discriminate, predict and ponder questions of right and wrong, and exercise self-control, motivation and goal setting. These neurological changes actually promote later addiction.

Whether the resiliency of youth can overcome these strikes is yet to be determined. I managed to escape my drunken high school years somewhat unscathed. However, these findings do validate an impression I’ve had: that my hard-drinking friends were held in a sort of learning limbo or maturity stasis.

Unfortunately, none of this new knowledge prepares me for helping my son navigate those years and years of beers. But that’s what other mothers are for! I’d love to hear some hard-won wisdom from any mothers of teens out there.