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Does alcohol damage the adolescent brain? Neuroanatomical and neuropsychological consequences of adolescent drinking

Authors Fleming R

Received 28 August 2015

Accepted for publication 7 October 2015

Published 9 December 2015 Volume 2015:4 Pages 51—60

DOI https://doi.org/10.2147/NAN.S60983

Checked for plagiarism Yes

Review by Single-blind

Peer reviewers approved by Dr Laura D'Antuono

Peer reviewer comments 3

Editor who approved publication: Dr Annabel Chen


Rebekah L Fleming1,2

1Durham VA Medical Center, 2Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC, USA

Abstract: Alcohol drinking is a significant risk factor for morbidity and mortality in adolescents worldwide. Adolescents frequently binge drink, and this pattern of use is associated with poor school performance, injuries, violence, drug use, and a variety of poor psychosocial outcomes in adulthood. These associations have raised concerns that alcohol drinking may damage the adolescent brain and lead to impaired cognition and behavior. Similar to the neurotoxicity seen in adult alcoholics, magnetic resonance imaging studies of brain anatomy in adolescent drinkers have shown that alcohol disrupts the development of temporal and frontal cortices and myelinated fiber tracts throughout the brain. Although adult brains show some recovery with abstinence, at present, no studies have examined brain recovery in adolescents. Studies of neuropsychological function have found deficits in attention and visuospatial ability that show dose-dependent correlations with alcohol exposure and withdrawal symptoms, but visuospatial performance recovers with short-term abstinence. Differences in executive function and decision-making have also been found, but the available evidence suggests that these are not primarily the result of alcohol exposure; instead, they reflect premorbid factors that increase risk-taking and substance use. Nevertheless, alcohol drinking by adolescents remains an important concern because of the potential for brain injury in addition to the many negative consequences associated with acute intoxication.

Keywords: adolescence, binge drinking, alcohol, magnetic resonance imaging, neuropsychological function

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