Our Blog

Teen Binge Drinking

Heavy Drinking & Its Impact on the Teen Brain

Hang out with a group of partying teenagers, and you’re likely to find them consuming alcohol. Underage drinking, drinking games and binge drinking are commonplace social activities among many high school and college students. According to data released by the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) in 2017, over four million young people ages 12 to 20 reported they had participated in binge drinking during the month before the survey.

Recognized mental and physical risks of teen alcohol use include, but are not limited to:

  • Poor school performance
  • Relationship problems
  • Isolation
  • Risky behavior
  • Mental illness
  • Organ damage
  • Addiction
  • Impaired driving & injury or death in automobile accidents

Now, new research from the University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Alcohol Research in Epigenetics has shown that adolescent binge drinking affects the wiring of the brain, increasing teenagers’ risks for lasting damage and psychological impairment. It also increases the likelihood of developing alcohol use disorder in adulthood.

Teen Drinking Leads to Epigenetic Changes

As teenage brains develop, chemical changes occur that modify genes without changing the genes themselves. These changes are referred to as epigenetic modifications, and they can be influenced by environmental and social factors like stress and alcohol. Healthy brain development includes some epigenetic changes, but new research indicates that alcohol may alter the behavioral development of teens who drink heavily early in life.

The University of Illinois study used postmortem human amygdala tissue from three groups of individuals:

Early-onset drinkers: 11 individuals who began drinking heavily before age 21
Late-onset drinkers: 11 individuals who began drinking heavily after age 21
22 individuals with no history of alcohol use disorder

Tissue samples from these three groups were analyzed for BDNF-AS, a non-coding RNA molecule that regulates the production of a protein that formulates and maintains brain synapses.

Researchers Reveal Significant Brain Changes

Results of the study showed marked differences between the amygdala samples from the three groups. Early onset drinkers had 30 to 40 percent less BDNF than the group with no history of alcohol misuse. In contrast, there was no corresponding difference in the brain tissue samples of the late onset drinkers. According to Subhash Pandey, professor of psychiatry and director of the UIC Center for Alcohol Research in Epigenetics, “BDNF is needed for normal development in the brain and for connections to form between neurons.”

Researchers believe that abnormal synapse formation in the amygdala is responsible for permanent changes in emotional regulation and behavior. Teenagers who begin heavy drinking before their minds are fully developed at age 25 (1) put normal brain maturation at risk, and (2) are more likely to become alcoholics later in life. “The epigenetic changes we saw in the amygdala of early-onset drinkers can alter the normal function of the amygdala, which helps regulate our emotions and may cause individuals to be more susceptible for things like anxiety, which we have shown in other studies, or the development and maintenance of alcohol use disorder later in life,” Pandey explains.

Indications of Teen Alcohol Use

To prevent early synapse/brain wiring damage in teens, parents should watch for these signs of alcohol use and heavy drinking:

  • Irritability & mood changes
  • Problems at school (both academic & behavioral)
  • Rebelliousness
  • Lethargy & inactivity
  • Changes in self-care
  • Changes in friend groups
  • Lack of concentration
  • Poor memory
  • Slurred speech
  • Problems with coordination

Early intervention in teen drinking may prevent physical and mental damage that could drastically affect a young person throughout his or her life.

A Clear Path to Recovery From Addiction

Each person who seeks treatment for alcohol dependency at Vista Taos has a personal addiction story, and often that story begins in the formative teen years with binge drinking and a desire to “fit in.” To understand your story, our team of certified addiction experts begins your recovery journey with a thorough evaluation and development of an individualized treatment plan. We know recovery is a multifaceted process, and success depends on balancing your medical, psychiatric and therapeutic needs to begin healing the whole you: body, mind and spirit.

Your Vista Taos recovery plan will guide you along a unique treatment path through medical detox, residential treatment, holistic therapies and even aftercare at Casa Feliz. Along the way, you’ll be introduced to life-changing experiences, relaxing amenities and adventurous excursions through the majestic and serene Southwestern landscape of Northern New Mexico.

If you or your loved one is ready to confront addiction and begin the path to a meaningful recovery, call 575.613.4810 to speak confidentially with a Vista Taos Admissions Counselor and verify insurance coverage. Reach out to us online, and we’ll respond promptly to your needs.


University of Illinois at Chicago. “Heavy drinking in teens causes lasting changes in emotional center of brain.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 February 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190206144521.htm>.

Share this post