Sunday, November 13, 2011

Permanent Brain Damage Caused By Teen Alcohol and Drug Use

Most mothers already know that during pregnancy a fertilized egg develops step by step until the baby is ready to come into the world. This is the most complex and sensitive period of a child's growth. If alcohol or drugs are passed from a mother's bloodstream into the womb in the wrong quantity or at the wrong time, the development of the unborn child can be disrupted. The consequence is often a newborn baby with physical problems, including abnormalities in the brain.

According to a front-page report from the November 13, 2011, San Antonio Express-News, the Children's Research Triangle has conducted screening at more than 100 sites nationwide this past year. Dr. Ira J. Chasnoff, a pediatrician there, concluded, "Drinking alcohol can be devastating to the developing fetus. It causes structural and functional changes in the brain. In San Antonio alone, nearly 100 of the 400 women screened were using a substance that harms the developing brain."

Nationwide, every year nearly 40,000 babies are born with disorders related to use of alcohol during pregnancy. The most serious disorder is "fetal alcohol syndrome" (FAS), the leading cause of mental retardation in the U.S. FAS also causes malformed facial features. In addition, three times as many children again are affected by "alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder," which is a serious form of brain damage marked by behavior and learning disabilities. These children are often misdiagnosed as having ADD.

This is why most doctors caution a mother to avoid using these substances during pregnancy. The consequences can be permanent, even tragic for the child and the family. The afflicted child will never be completely normal.

After birth, a child's brain goes through many more phases of development as the child's brain gains perceptual abilities, then physical abilities, then language abilities, and beyond. Once removed from the womb and weaned from the breast, a child is relatively safe from a mother substance abuse.

But what parents don’t know is that the danger of brain damage surfaces again when a child reaches puberty.

There are the well-known dangers of adolescent drinking. Thousands of young people are killed every year in alcohol-related incidents. Some escape death, but "get in trouble." Traffic accidents and teen pregnancy, for example. Many more become alcoholics.

As tragic as these consequences are, there is one more that is just as awful - or even worse - and most parents don’t know about it. Teenagers who drink too much at this time of life can cause permanent brain damage. I'm not talking about the old scare that drinking alcohol will kill off a few hundred brain cells. No, it's much worse than that. Just like the brain development that happens in the fetus, a sensitive period of brain growth is underway during adolescence, and alcohol entering the brain can dramatically disrupt the growth process. The result could be a permanent degradation of brain function of the prefrontal lobes - the area that coordinates higher-level thinking.

During the past decade scientists have discovered that a young person's brain is still changing and developing throughout adolescence. Significantly, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in analysis, reasoning, foreseeing consequences, problem solving, conceptual thinking, planning and self-management, is "under construction" throughout adolescence. Essentially, the foundation for intellectual thought is being wired during this sensitive 12-year period.

The problem is that this is the same phase of growing up when many young people experiment with alcohol and drugs. All this partying, binge drinking and "sowing wild oats" used to be thought of as a harmless phase that teenagers ultimately outgrow.

Cruel comments such as, "Old Harold is a couple cards short of a full deck," are often directed at adults who "aren't very bright." We now know that the inability of an adult to use good judgment, control emotions, and connect the dots quickly could have been caused by drinking alcohol or using drugs during adolescence.

Young people who abuse substances during the ages from 12 to 24 risk diminished mental capacity as adults—the equivalent of permanent brain damage.

So laughing off the behavior as youthful sowing of wild oats is a shocking rationalization. Still, this is a hard topic for parents to discuss with their kids. Maybe this new information will help. Also, I’ve written these books to coach pre-teens and teens about these and other issues: Conversations with the Wise Aunt (for girls) and Conversations with the Wise Uncle (for boys). I’ve also written a guide for parents who want to stimulate growth of their child’s prefrontal cortex, How to Give Your Teen a Superior Mind, available as a free download at

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .

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