When ‘Just Say No’ Isn’t Enough: Try Science
the way they work, change, and even “freeze” sometimes. The American
Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recommends that parents,
teachers and caregivers use that fascination to engage middle and high school
students this holiday season in a discussion of why they shouldn’t drink
“Parents need every tool they can find to convince their teens not to
drink alcohol, particularly during the holiday season,” says
head of the Education & Human Resources Directorate at AAAS. “Science is such
a tool, and it is providing new insights on alcohol’s effects on the maturing
Scientists used to believe that human brains finished developing before
adolescence. But according to The Science Inside Alcohol Project, an alcohol
education effort of the AAAS that is funded by the National Institute on
Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), new and ongoing brain research shows
that important brain regions and their interconnections are still developing
well into a person’s twenties.
The brain is made up of more than 100 billion neurons, each making tens of
thousands of connections. Alcohol can damage or even kill neurons, perhaps
altering development of those parts of the adolescent brain that are still
forming. Research suggests that alcohol can cause teens to:
Make bad decisions. The prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning
and decision-making, does not completely mature until after the teen years.
Using alcohol can harm a teen’s ability to reason and weigh options instead of
just doing something because it is fun or feels good.
Develop a tolerance for alcohol and drink more over time. When adolescents
drink on multiple occasions, their brains develop tolerance to alcohol,
requiring more alcohol to obtain the same effects as previously. This
encourages higher levels of use, potentially leading to alcohol abuse and even
dependence. The highest rates of abuse and dependence on alcohol have been
reported among youth in their late teens and early twenties, followed by 12-17
Take risks they usually would not take. Connections between regions of the
prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum, an important part of the brain’s
reward system, are important in regulating impulsive behavior and are still
maturing during adolescence. Alcohol can affect those connections, making
teens more likely to do impulsive things they later may regret — like
drinking and driving or having sex.
Harm their memories. The hippocampus, or the area in the brain that stores
memory, is still maturing during adolescence. Research shows that ingesting
even small amounts of alcohol can make teens less likely to recall something
they learned earlier or remember what they did while drinking.
Cause problems with medications. Medication for attention deficit
disorder, bipolar disorder or other problems with the brain may react badly
with alcohol. For instance, if a teen takes Ritalin and drinks alcohol it may
increase the effects of Ritalin, affecting the ability to perform tasks that
require complete concentration. For those taking lithium for bipolar disorder,
drinking alcohol, particularly in large quantities, can impair judgment,
thinking and motor skills.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the
world’s largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal,
Science. For more information on the nonprofit AAAS, please visit