Mechanisms involved in the neurotoxic, cognitive, and neurobehavioral effects of alcohol consumption during adolescence

Alcohol. 2010 Feb;44(1):15-26. doi: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2009.10.003.


Studies over the last decade demonstrate that adolescence is a brain maturation period from childhood to adulthood. Plastic and dynamic processes drive adolescent brain development, creating flexibility that allows the brain to refine itself, specialize, and sharpen its functions for specific demands. Maturing connections enable increased communication among brain regions, allowing greater integration and complexity. Compelling evidence has shown that the developing brain is vulnerable to the damaging effects of ethanol. It is possible to infer, therefore, that alcohol exposure during the critical adolescent developmental stages could disrupt the brain plasticity and maturation processes, resulting in behavioral and cognitive deficits. Recent neuroimaging studies have provided evidence of the impact of human adolescent drinking in brain structure and functions. Findings in experimental animals have also given new insight into the potential mechanisms of the toxic effects of ethanol on both adolescent brain maturation and the short- and long-term cognitive consequences of adolescent drinking. Adolescence is also characterized by the rapid maturation of brain systems mediating reward and by changes in the secretion of stress-related hormones, events that might participate in the increasing in anxiety and the initiation pattern of alcohol and drug consumption. Studies in human adolescents demonstrate that drinking at early ages can enhance the likelihood of developing alcohol-related problems. Experimental evidence suggests that early exposure to alcohol sensitizes the neurocircuitry of addiction and affects chromatin remodeling, events that could induce abnormal plasticity in reward-related learning processes that contribute to adolescents' vulnerability to drug addiction. In this article, we review the potential mechanisms by which ethanol impacts brain development and lead to brain impairments and cognitive and behavioral dysfunctions as well as the neurobiological and neurochemical processes underlying the adolescent-specific vulnerability to drug addiction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / drug effects*
  • Adolescent Development / drug effects*
  • Age Factors
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects*
  • Alcohol Drinking / genetics
  • Alcohol Drinking / physiopathology
  • Alcohol Drinking / psychology
  • Alcohol-Induced Disorders, Nervous System / etiology*
  • Alcohol-Induced Disorders, Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Alcohol-Induced Disorders, Nervous System / psychology
  • Behavior, Addictive / physiopathology
  • Behavior, Addictive / psychology
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / adverse effects*
  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Humans
  • Reward
  • Risk Factors


  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • Ethanol