Drinkaware commissioned a systematic evidence review of the impact of alcohol on brain development in adolescence.

The review found that:

  • A large proportion of adolescents drink alcohol.
  • Studies show how alcohol affects human adolescent brain development.
  • Differences in structure and function are observed in the brains of young people who drink alcohol.
  • More high-quality studies are needed in this developing field of research.

The researchers reviewed 21 brain-scan studies of young people aged 19 and under, examining how drinking alcohol influences the developing human brain. The studies were using the brain-scan techniques of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The review found that overall, young people who drink alcohol showed regional differences in brain structure compared to young people not drinking alcohol. For example, they had smaller grey matter volumes and lower white matter integrity in relevant brain areas, and the findings also suggest that young women may be more vulnerable than young men.

However, even if the review found differences in the brain associated with alcohol use, this is a relatively new field of research and there were clear limitations to the studies reviewed, e.g. small sample sizes, cross-sectional designs and presence of confounding factors. This means that results should be interpreted with caution and further high-quality research is needed to provide a more comprehensive and conclusive picture of the effect of alcohol consumption on the developing brain.

View the full published review here 

The review was undertaken by Professor Sarah W. Feldstein Ewing from the University of New Mexico and Professor Sarah-Jayne Blackmore and Ashok Sakhardande from University College London, and was overseen by Drinkaware’s Independent Medical Advisory Panel.

View the presentation Professor Blakemore gave on the adolescent brain and alcohol at the 2014 Drinkaware Annual Conference here.  

Watch Professor Blakemore's TED and Royal Society talks on the adolescent brain.