News Flash: Binge Drinking and Pot Screw Up Teens' Minds

Filed under: In The News, Alcohol & Drugs, Research Reveals: Teens

binge drinking picture

Binge drinking is bad for your brain. Credit: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

You've warned your kids repeatedly of the dangers of teens drinking and smoking pot, not to mention that pesky little fact that both are illegal. Well, here's one more caution to add to your arsenal: A new study suggests that getting wasted regularly may cause mental problems, including major dings in decision-making skills, that can have long-lasting effects after the hangovers have worn off.

According to CNN, and here's a news flash, the study says this is a problem because teens drink. Underage drinking is an enormous public health issue, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Underage Drinking Research Initiative. Annually, about 5,000 people younger than 21 die from motor vehicle crashes, other unintentional injuries and homicides and suicides that involve underage drinking.

Researchers interviewed 48 teens between the ages of 12 and 18 about their alcohol use and gave them a battery of attention and cognition tests at least two days after their last drinking spree, according to CNN. The more alcohol the teens reported consuming during their drinking sessions, the poorer they performed on the tests, the study reveals.

Marijuana also caused memory problems, according to the study, which was published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Whether or not the mental deficits are permanent still needs to be determined, Robert J. Thoma, Ph.D., the lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, tells WebMD.

"The most important thing in kids' lives is school," Thoma also tells CNN. "If you have a problem with sustained attention, then how are you going to do in math class? These kids are making things more difficult for themselves."

And, there could be long-term consequences.

"Consistent under-performance in school could shift an adolescent's trajectory of educational attainment, thereby affecting subsequent job placement and socioeconomic status," Thoma tells WebMD.

Thoma and his colleagues looked at three groups of teens: 19 who had been diagnosed with substance abuse; 14 who had a family history (but no personal history) of problem drinking; and 15 with no history of alcohol problems, according to WebMD.

Kids with substance abuse problems reported consuming an average of 13 alcoholic beverages on days when they drank. The other two groups of teens averaged one drink or less for each day they chose to consume, WebMD reports.

It didn't seem to matter how often the teens drank, but only how many alcoholic beverages they consumed on days when they did drink, Thoma tells WebMD.

Susan Tapert, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, tells CNN these findings may serve as a wake-up call for teenagers who drink heavily -- and their families.

"If we have data like these that suggest the kids who were using substances performed much worse on some important measures, then I think that information is important to pass along to young people," she says.

In a study last April, Tapert found heavy episodic or "binge" drinking is common among adolescents, with 55 percent of high school seniors reporting having gotten drunk, and a quarter of them reporting having consumed five or more drinks in a row during the previous two weeks, according to a press release.

Experts say they are holding out hope that the adolescent brain is more resilient, and, with a break from drinking, teens can recover from the damage they've done to themselves, Thoma tells WebMD.

"I'm really hoping that the resilience of the adolescent brain will allow them to reverse the trend," he says.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.