Childhood and adolescence are periods of dynamic central nervous system (CNS) growth that continues into early adulthood.  Researchers believe that ongoing CNS development is the reason why children and adolescents have different responses than adults to drugs and alcohol. The adolescent brain is 4 to 5 times more vulnerable to alcohol-induced brain damage than the adult brain.

There are 3 factors that have been found to have an impact on neurological maturation:

  • The time period when an individual begins to use drugs and alcohol;
  • The duration of drugs and alcohol use;
  • The frequency of use.

Gray & White Matter in Brain

  • Grey matter in the brain usually peaks around the age of 11 in girls, and age 12 in boys. After that age, there is a slow reduction in the total volume of grey matter because the brain begins to eliminate neural pathways that are unused or duplicated.
  • It has been found that binge drinking in adolescece results in altered fiber coherence in the white matter of the brain.Researchers are still working to grasp the implications of decreased fiber coherence.
  • Research indicates that moderately heavy alcohol use during adolescence (or enough to produce a “hangover”) may affect neurological growth.
The Hippocampus
  • The hippocampus is a core part of the limbic system and plays an important role in the development of long-term memory, short-term memory and spatial navigation.
  • There is a 7-10% decline in psychological test performance in adolescent alcohol users and opposed to non-users. Researchers believe that this decline in cognitive ability is permanent.
  • Compared to adult drinkers, adolescents tend to experience less sedation by dose of alcohol than adults.
  • The lack of sedation can contribute to adolescents’ tendency to overuse alcohol, which may result in high-risk behavior (Driving under the influence, unprotected sex, etc.).

The Amygdala

  • New stimuli to the adult brain are typically interpreted in the prefrontal regions of the cortex, while adolescents appear to interpret the same stimuli in the amygdala.
  • The amygdala is a part of the limbic system, which is involved in emotional responses to external stimuli. This is why adolescents tend to respond to life differently than adults – because they process information differently.
  • This means that substance abuse during adolescence may put the user at risk of establishing strong positive memories and deep-rooted emotions to compounds like alcohol. This increases the likelihood that they will repeat the experience later.
  • This means adolescents are at a greater risk for relapse because of environmental drug use cues.
  • This helps to explain why substance abuse in adolescence raises the individual’s lifetime risk of developing a substance abuse disorder.

Doweiko, H.   (2012). Concepts of chemical dependency. (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.