Alcohol Brain Science of Teens: Dissenting Ideas to Consider

In his discussion below on teen alcohol brain science, journalist John Buell raises serious questions. For more observations by John Buell, visit Facts of Teen Prohibition and Underage Drinking Problem Prevention.

Here’s John Buell’s piece.


Earlier I suggested that collegiate binge drinking would increase if society intensified campaigns against all underage drinking. Recent publicity about new scientific evidence on alcohol and teen brains has given me pause. Nonetheless, it appears that disciplining teenagers for moderate alcohol consumption is neither scientifically justified nor productive.

Be Wary

alcohol brain scienceOne should be wary about claims for new scientific discoveries. Findings qualify as discoveries only when results are replicated over time and across cultures. Dr. David J. Hanson, a respected expert on the politics and etiology of alcohol abuse, points out that many “new findings” are extrapolations from studies on rats. Of course, rats often react to drugs in ways different from humans. Others are based on severely alcohol-dependent teens, some as young as 12. Though such studies are cautionary, their applicability to moderate drinking by 16- to 20-year-olds has been contested by many experts.

Earlier attempts to tie cognitive loss to moderate alcohol consumption in adults have been contradicted by later studies that attribute the impairment to educational and cultural deficiencies. In addition, cognition is complex. It is measured in different ways. As with IQ tests, questions reflect cultural predispositions. No small set of findings can be decisive.

In adults, there is also strong evidence that moderate drinking, while slightly increasing the incidence of relatively uncommon hemorrhagic stroke, reduces the risk of more likely ischemic (clot) stroke. Since arterial hardening starts at a very young age, might moderate alcohol consumption convey some long-term cardiovascular benefit? An intriguing but little-reported Australian study suggests cognitive enhancement from moderate alcohol consumption by subjects as young as 20.


Unfortunately, over the years scientists working under grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism have authored studies indicating benefits from moderate consumption among adults only to see some of these studies withheld or under publicized by their political superiors. As in recent cases with marijuana, a researcher today who documented benefits from any stigmatized substance might see the results suppressed and future funding ended.

Even honest brain research confronts an inherent dilemma that makes conclusions problematic. Language, thought and culture – including the culture of “having a drink” – are enabled and affected by the circuitry and neurochemistry of the brain. But by the same token, thought techniques, such as meditation, exert observable effects on the architecture of the brain In addition, once evolution enables linguistic capacity, distinct languages, cultures and beliefs emerge through social interactions. Culture and biochemistry both matter.

An individual’s beliefs can have a discernible effect on the brain. Neurons that fire together wire together, in the famous phrase. Some studies indicate that alcohol’s ability to induce violence is greater when subjects are told that alcohol increases violence. Might research subjects informed that even small amounts of alcohol make one stupid not respond in an analogous manner? I don’t know the answer. However, stigmatizing all underage drinking makes it more difficult to obtain data and affects the outcome of the research.

Default Position

Some public health advocates assert that the science isn’t in. Therefore, the default position should be to tell our teens not to drink. My default position is to tell teenagers the truth. That is, some scientists believe that moderate alcohol intake may damage the brain. Yet other scientists disagree. Some even believe current research suggests possible benefits from moderate teen consumption. I emphasize the one strong scientific consensus. That is, excessive consumption is dangerous both short and long term.

Finally, even if negative epidemiological studies on teen drinking become much more solid, it does not follow that if parents or police criminalize, punish, or even stigmatize moderate drinking by 16- to 20-year-olds, social benefits will follow. As long as we allow 18-year-olds to vote, join the army and allow even 16-year-olds to drive, they like older citizens are already making equally serious risk-reward choices on a daily basis and may resent and rebel against our sanctions.

Unintended Consequences

If we withhold alcohol, why not iPods, cell phones or Coca-Cola which may harm cognitive development? Teens can and do learn to live with ambiguity. When parents impose absolute restrictions that many of them did not follow and base these norms on controversial or politically motivated science, destructive consequences follow. Respect for law, parents, and public health authorities suffers.

We should discuss all risks with teens. If people cut their driving in half theywould get far more health benefits than cutting their drinking in half. Our government would do better focusing on our dangerous transportation system.

Alcohol Brain Science

Readings: Alcohol Brain Science
    • “Alcohol Brain Science of Teens” was originally in the Bangor Daily News. Its title was “Dissenting Ideas on New Teen Brain Science.” Posted by permission of the author. Slightly edited and headings added.
    • You now know more about alcohol brain science than most people. So kudos!
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