Background: Adolescents and college students are at high risk for initiating alcohol use and high-risk (or binge) drinking. There is a growing body of literature on neurotoxic and harmful cognitive effects of drinking by young people. On average, youths take their first drink at age 12 years.
Methods: MEDLINE search on neurologic and cognitive effects of underage drinking.
Results: Problematic alcohol consumption is not a benign condition that resolves with age. Individuals who first use alcohol before age 14 years are at increased risk of developing alcohol use disorders. Underage drinkers are susceptible to immediate consequences of alcohol use, including blackouts, hangovers, and alcohol poisoning and are at elevated risk of neurodegeneration (particularly in regions of the brain responsible for learning and memory), impairments in functional brain activity, and the appearance of neurocognitive deficits. Heavy episodic or binge drinking impairs study habits and erodes the development of transitional skills to adulthood.
Conclusions: Underage alcohol use is associated with brain damage and neurocognitive deficits, with implications for learning and intellectual development. Impaired intellectual development may continue to affect individuals into adulthood. It is imperative for policymakers and organized medicine to address the problem of underage drinking.