Per occasion, alcohol consumption is higher in adolescents than in adults in both humans and laboratory animals, with changes in the adolescent brain probably contributing to this elevated drinking. This Review examines the contributors to and consequences of the use of alcohol in adolescents. Human adolescents with a history of alcohol use differ neurally and cognitively from other adolescents; some of these differences predate the commencement of alcohol consumption and serve as potential risk factors for later alcohol use, whereas others emerge from its use. The consequences of alcohol use in human adolescents include alterations in attention, verbal learning, visuospatial processing and memory, along with altered development of grey and white matter volumes and disrupted white matter integrity. The functional consequences of adolescent alcohol use emerging from studies of rodent models of adolescence include decreased cognitive flexibility, behavioural inefficiencies and elevations in anxiety, disinhibition, impulsivity and risk-taking. Rodent studies have also showed that adolescent alcohol use can impair neurogenesis, induce neuroinflammation and epigenetic alterations, and lead to the persistence of adolescent-like neurobehavioural phenotypes into adulthood. Although only a limited number of studies have examined comparable measures in humans and laboratory animals, the available data provide evidence for notable across-species similarities in the neural consequences of adolescent alcohol exposure, providing support for further translational efforts in this context.