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Research Summary

Alcohol, Adolescents, and Brain Damage

The high prevalence and significant consequences of alcohol use among adolescents and college students are well known. To summarize the neurologic and neurocognitive effects of underage drinking, researchers systematically reviewed the literature and found the following:

  • Underage drinking substantially increases the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder in adulthood.
  • Adolescents and young adults are more susceptible to the negative cognitive effects of alcohol than are adults.
  • Alcohol use can cause a host of immediate neurological consequences (e.g., blackouts, hangovers, overdose with respiratory arrest and death), cognitive dysfunction (e.g., memory, language, learning, and visuospatial problems), and sleep disturbance. These problems, along with mood disorders often associated with alcohol use, can impair intellectual development and academic performance— impacting adolescents even after they become adults.
  • Alcohol use, which impairs motor skills and judgment, can contribute to motor vehicles crashes (and related injuries and death), other unintentional injuries, risky sexual behaviors, assault, suicide attempts, drowning, and other drug use among adolescents and young adults.


These well-documented, serious short- and long-term consequences underscore the danger of dismissing underage drinking as a normal “rite of passage” (e.g., “kids will be kids”). As stated by the authors, underage drinking must be addressed with a combination of individual strategies (e.g., identifying and counseling at-risk youth, parental education) and environmental efforts (e.g., curbing advertising and availability).

Rosanne T. Guerriero, MPH
Richard Saitz, MD, MPH


Zeigler DW, Wang CC, Yoast RA, et al. The neurocognitive effects of alcohol on adolescents and college students. Prev Med. 2005;40(1):23–32.