The Teen Brain

We used to think that the brain was fully developed by the age of five. Scientific advancements in brain imaging now tell us that the brain continues to develop until at least the mid-20’s. What we do as kids and teenagers can have a major impact on that development.

To understand the effects of alcohol on the brain, it is important to have a basic understanding of how the brain works. Much of brain functioning is a chemical balancing act, so changing the chemicals in the brain with alcohol or other drugs affects how the brain receives, sends, and processes information.

Because the brain of an adolescent is still developing, the impact of alcohol can be more devastating than its effect on adults.
  • Learning and memory are impaired. Adolescent drinkers perform worse in school.
  • The sleep cycle is disrupted, also contributing to more difficulty with learning and memory.
  • The part of the brain affecting reasoning, planning and judgment is still developing through the teen years. Alcohol use increases their risk.
  • Binge drinking is especially dangerous because the teen brain is much more vulnerable to damage.
  • Alcohol’s effect on coordination, hand-eye movement, speech, and emotional control also increases environmental risks for teens whose brains are not fully developed.

A simple introduction to the brain, how it communicates, and what happens when drugs such as alcohol are used can be found at the National Institute for Drug Abuse Teen website. The site also talks about addiction and treatment.

A Parent’s Guide to the Teen Brain, located on the Partnership for a Drug Free America website, contains valuable information about understanding teen behavior.

Additional resources for understanding brain development and the effects of alcohol and other drugs are:


If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, call the Recovery Helpline at 1-866-789-1511.



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