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In most states of the United States, the legal drinking age is 21, but relatively few American youth wait until age 21 to sample alcoholic beverages. The National Institutes of Health estimates that 35 percent of teens have sampled a drink by the age of 15, and 65 percent by the age of 18. The amount of alcohol assumed by tweenagers and teenagers is enormous. Americans between the ages of 12 and 20 consume about 11 percent of all the alcohol drunk in the United States, or the equivalent of nearly 20 billion shots of alcohol per year.
Adolescents tend to drink less often than adults, but when they do drink, they tend to drink more. Binge drinking, usually on weekends, usually in a location not supervised by adults, accounts for 90 percent of all alcohol consumption by teenagers. In addition to the risk of car crashes, pregnancies, and crimes committed by drunk teenagers, binge drinking causes lasting changes in the brain that affect drinking habits for a lifetime.
Binge Drinking Changes the Brain
The attraction of binge drinking to people of any age lies in the euphoric "high" that results from intoxication. In this regard, alcohol is no different from other popular drugs. You drink to feel good, and maybe you drink some more to avoid your hangover. In biological terms, alcohol activates brain pathways that respond to the chemical dopamine. There are specific kinds of dopamine receptor neurons that are changed the very first time you take a drink, or at least this what seems to be the case in studies of mice.
University of California at San Francisco researcher Dr. Dorit Ron gave groups of mice either water or a mixture of 20 percent (40 proof) alcohol of water they could drink as desired for a day, and then the next day sacrificed the mice to see if this first-time exposure to alcohol had changed the structure of their brains. What Dr. Ron and collaborators discovered was that the very first time the mice consumed alcohol, the dopamine receptors in their brains changed. It just took one drink to make a permanent change in the mouse's brain.
Researchers aren't going to perform a similar experiment with human teenagers, but it seems likely that the brains of adolescent people also change with the very first exposure to alcohol.
What Difference Does It Make If Alcohol Changes Your Brain?
The significance of brain changes for teenage drinkers is that once you drink, and especially if you binge, your brain is forever primed for more. You can't unlearn the enjoyment you experience from alcohol. You can make a conscious decision to avoid alcohol because of the negative consequences of excessive (or, in the case of teenagers in the United States, illegal and/or criminal) drinking behaviors, but you will have to fight the urge forever more. Researchers like Dr. Ron believe it may be possible to create medications that target dopamine receptors to help deal with alcoholism and other forms of addiction, but these are years away.