December 6, 2021

In It Together: Binge Drinking is Bad for the Brain … Even for Teens

Underage binge drinking is a reality in all communities and Lyme and Old Lyme are no different. Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash.

Summer is here, parties are happening, and alcohol consumption will increase. This is a good time of year to dive deeper into the effects of binge drinking on the brain and development.

You have surely heard that abusing alcohol hurts your health. But how many years of drinking do you think it takes to visibly affect your brain? Ten years? Twenty?

Turns out that it doesn’t take that long at all — in fact, scientists can already see changes in the brains of teenagers who drink.

In a research study, Professor Susan Tapert of the University of California at San Diego used an MRI to scan the brains of teens who binge drink — defined as drinking four or five (or more) drinks in a couple of hours. Dr. Tapert found that the “white matter” in their brains — the part that transmits signals, like a TV cable or a computer USB cord — was abnormal compared with the white matter of teens who do not binge drink.

Transmitting signals is a big part of what the brain does, so affecting the white matter in this way could also affect a person’s thinking, learning, and memory.

The really scary part is that these teens weren’t alcoholics, and they didn’t drink every day. All they did (to be considered “binge drinkers”) was drink at least four (for women) or five (for men) drinks in one sitting, at least one time during the previous three months.

A Youth Survey conducted by Lymes’ Youth Service Bureau (LYSB) in 2019 in Lyme and Old Lyme found that 67 percent of students in grades 7-12 reported having engaged in binge drinking at least once in their lifetime. The survey also found that 24 percent of students in grades 7-12 reported binge drinking within the past 30 days and 34 percent of all 12th graders reported the same thing. 

Underage binge drinking is a reality in all communities and ours is no different.  

How could it be possible for just a few sessions of heavy drinking to affect the white matter of the brain? Well, science has shown that alcohol can poison brain cells and alter the brain’s white matter in adult alcoholics.

Dr. Tapert thinks that teenagers’ brains are even more susceptible this way. She states, “Because the brain is still developing during adolescence, there has been concern that it may be more vulnerable to high doses of alcohol.”

And the bottom line?

If you’re a teen, drinking to the point of getting drunk could damage the white matter of your brain—even if you do it only once in a while.                               

Tips for parents about how to talk to your kids about alcohol, and more information on the LYSB’s survey results are  available at this link.

Article source: The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

Alli Behnke

About the Author: Alli Behnke, MSW, MA is the Prevention Coordinator at Lymes’ Youth Service Bureau. She has been a Social Worker for 20 years working in the fields of prevention, therapy, youth leadership, and health coaching. Alli believes strongly in providing accurate information, education, and tools for success when empowering the Lyme/Old Lyme Prevention Coalition and REACH Youth Coalition to work together on strengths-based campaigns. The Coalitions address substance abuse and other risky behaviors challenging our youth and families. Contact her at or visit to become involved in this important community work.

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