Drinking in Adolescence Derails Normal Brain Development

April 13, 2018

Initiating heavy drinking during adolescence alters the normal trajectory of brain development, according to a new prospective study published online in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

The study involved 483 adolescents aged 12 through 21. At baseline, participants had no or low alcohol consumption. Researchers conducted structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans at study entry, 1 year later, and 2 years later, to gauge how onset of alcohol use affected the trajectory of brain growth.

At the 2-year assessment, 62 participants reported heavy drinking, 65 reported moderate drinking, and 356 reported continued no or low alcohol use. When researchers compared MRI scans by levels of alcohol use, they found key differences. In participants who drank little or not at all, the volume of gray matter declined and growth in white matter regions slowed—patterns normally seen throughout adolescence. However, among participants who began drinking heavily over the course of the study, researchers reported “an accelerated frontal cortical gray matter trajectory, divergent from the norm.”

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While adolescents who initiated moderate drinking did not show significant trajectory effects, their intermediate position between the other 2 groups suggests a dose effect, researchers wrote.

In a journal podcast, researcher Adolf Pfefferbaum, MD, emphasized the importance of asking adolescents about alcohol use, Psychiatric News Alert reported.

“What we’re seeing here is an alteration in normal development,” Dr. Pfefferbaum said in the podcast. “When we did this study, we saw that children as young as 12 sometimes start drinking.”

—Jolynn Tumolo


Pfefferbaum A, Kwon D, Brumback T, et al. Altered brain developmental trajectories in adolescents after initiating drinking. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 2018 April 1;[Epub ahead of print].

Heavy drinking in adolescence appears to change developing brain. Psychiatric News Alert. April 4, 2018.