A study from the University of Chicago has found that people who drink alcohol heavily before age 21 can damage the workings of the amygdala, the portion of the brain that regulates emotions and decision-making.
The brain continues to develop into a person’s early 20s. Frequent heavy drinking before that process is finished can permanently hamper the amygdala’s ability to make and use a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which is crucial to the brain’s proper functioning.
If the amygdala can’t make and use BDNF, a person may not be able to deal well with anxiety and also will be more prone than usual to alcoholism.
Teens who drink heavily show increased activity in the amygdala, which tends to lead to impulsive behavior, risk-taking, and poorly thought-out decisions.
Because teens’ brains are still developing and organizing, controlling adolescent’s’ access to mind-altering chemicals is vital. However, states legalizing marijuana – and colleges, where some students major in beer-drinking – haven’t instituted public health programs to steer young people away from these life-altering behaviors. As research such as Chicago’s becomes better known, states and institutions will begin to see teen intoxication as an urgent health issue with long-term implications.