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Medical experts tell us that binge drinking is bad for teen brains, and pot is detrimental to adolescent intellectual development, too.

Even if your teen is not a genius, chances are that he or she realizes that two six packs of beer in a single night is not conducive to passing advanced placement classes or scoring perfect SATs. A research study recently reported in the medical journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, however, proves it.

Clinical psychologists identified 48 adolescents aged 12 to 18. One third of the subjects were "average teenagers," not "problem teenagers," and there was no history of alcohol in their families. One third of the teens had been diagnosed as having problems with drugs or alcohol, and the final third were not diagnosed as having these kinds of problems but had family members who had problems with drugs or alcohol.

Kids with diagnosed alcohol or marijuana problems of their own drank an average of 13 drinks on days when they drank. Kids in the other groups drank and average of 1 drink per day or less when they drank.

Forty-eight hours after their most recent use of alcohol or marijuana, the test subjects were given a battery of tests to measure cognition and attention. Psychiatrists and psychologists used the battery of tests to come up with scores for verbal reasoning, eye-hand coordination and visuospatial ability, executive function (the ability to make good judgments, plan ahead, and multi-task), attention span, memory, and "processing speed," or how quickly the teens could think. They compared these scores against age, drinks per day, number of days the teen drank at least one drink, and number of days the teen smoked marijuana.

The higher the high, the poorer the memory 

It probably will surprise no one that the tests showed that the more marijuana the teens reported having smoked, even after the buzz had worn off, the poorer their memories. It also probably would not surprise anyone that the more days teens drank, the poorer their ratings for executive function and the shorter their attention spans.

What was surprising, however, was that having a family member with an alcohol or drug issue, however, was associated with poor visuospatial ability, understanding how parts fit together, for instance. In general, heavy use of alcohol affected attention span and "common sense," and heavy marijuana use affected memory. Heavy use of alcohol also limited the ability to multi-task.

The effects of alcohol and marijuana abuse on academic performance were also obvious. As study scientist Dr. Robert Thoma, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque puts it, "How well are you going to do in AP calculus if you don’t get to class on time because you can't remember where you put your shoes?" But the bigger problem may be the risk to the teens' very lives.

When adults drink too much, they tend to get sleepy. When teens drink too much, they do not. An intoxicated teenager is much more likely to get behind the wheel of a car and crash than an intoxicated adult. The ability of teenaged brains to "handle" alcohol actually increases their risk of being in injurious or fatal crashes.

Moreover, it is legitimate to question whether alcohol and marijuana are gateway drugs to cocaine and heroin. Even if there is no clear biological connection between the addictions, the common denominator for certain kinds of drug use leading to drug abuse is impaired judgment.

  • Thoma RJ, Monnig MA, Lysne PA, Ruhl DA, Pommy JA, Bogenschutz M, Tonigan JS, Yeo RA. Adolescent Substance Abuse: The Effects of Alcohol and Marijuana on Neuropsychological Performance. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2010 Oct 19. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2010.01320.x. [Epub ahead of print]