The effects of early alcohol use

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Adolescence, a period of transition that is a risk factor for excessive drinking

Jeunes précoces

Adolescence is the period of transition from childhood through puberty to adulthood. It is generally acknowledged to be a very awkward time.

Adolescence is often defined by physical and biological changes, but there is more to it than that. Significant social changes also occur as people pass from childhood, i.e. requiring supervision, to adulthood, i.e. responsible for their own behaviour.

Increasingly, researchers are coming to agree that individual characteristics and social demands, as opposed to simply age, are what define adolescence. Given that periods of transition and upheaval are strongly associated with excessive drinking, adolescence itself is a risk factor for excessive drinking.

It therefore comes as no surprise that this is the time when most young people have their first experience with alcohol.

How the adolescent brain develops

The brain exemplifies the changes and transitions of adolescence. Contrary to what neurologists and psychiatrists believed for so long, the brain of an adolescent is not yet fully developed. In fact, just like the body, it goes through a major transformation during this particular period.

During the pre-teen and teenage years, the brain is “reconfigured” and the areas responsible for emotions undergo particular modification. The emotional intensity of adolescence, which some adults recall with nostalgia, is one phenomenon that can be explained by neurochemical developments in the brain. Last to mature is the frontal lobe*, which is involved in planning, strategizing, organization, concentration and attention.
*The frontal lobe and the prefontal cortex.

The brain’s slower pace of development may cause excessive drinking

The adolescent brain may be slow to develop, but children are reaching puberty earlier and earlier. This remarkable contradiction is identified as a risk factor in alcohol abuse among young people.

This puts adolescents doubly at risk for alcohol abuse: their capacity to think properly and make good judgements is still developing, and they are thrill seekers. That makes them awkward.

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