Facts & Statistics

How Alcohol Affects the Brain

Illustration of a brain inside a child's head.

Alcohol can cut short the healthy brain development of a child.

Many of the risks related to underage drinking are tied directly to the brain and its function. The brain of a young child is in development until around age 25. Alcohol can cut short its healthy growth and “re-wire” it in ways that cause physical, emotional and social harm to a child.1

Two crucial parts of the brain that control memory, learning, decision-making and personality are especially vulnerable to alcohol as a child grows.

Memory and learning are controlled by a part of the brain called the Hippocampus (look it up online with your child to learn more). This part is especially sensitive during your child’s development. Alcohol use can poison the nerve cells and cause permanent damage. This can lead to memory loss and poor school performance.

The Cerebral Cortex/Frontal Lobe (also a good one to look up with your child) is important for planning, judgment, decision-making, impulse control and language. This area of the brain changes the most during the teenage years, so if kids are drinking in elementary and middle school, there’s a real potential for harm later on. The damage alcohol use can have on the Prefrontal Lobe can cause emotional instability, aggression, risky behavior, and other negative effects in children.

Excessive alcohol can also impair:

  • Physical balance and speech. Drinking can lead to falling and slurred speech. (Cerebellum)
  • Organs and bodily function. The Hypothalamus keeps these working together. Alcohol can cause increased need to urinate and lowered heart rate.
  • Breathing and heart rate. The Medulla controls vital functions like breathing and heart rate. Alcohol causes the medulla to lower the body’s temperature, and that can lead to hypothermia. The Medulla can work to fight off alcohol in your system, but if it is overwhelmed, alcohol poisoning can result.2

1Siqueira, L. VC Smith, Comm Subst Abuse, and Committee on Substance Abuse, “Binge Drinking,” Pediatrics 136, no. 3 (2015): E718-E726.

2The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, “Ask, Listen, Learn,” accessed September 2017.

Illustration of a dinner party with a kid holding a glass of wine.

2 in 5 PA parents find it acceptable for kids to drink alcohol on "special occasions"

About the same percentage of parents (37%) believe it’s natural for children to experiment with alcohol and trust their child to experiment responsibly.

Tip: To help your child avoid the risks associated with alcohol, it’s important to learn the facts. It’s illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to drink alcohol – regardless of the situation. And children who begin drinking at an early age can be four times more likely to have problems with alcohol later in life.

Dear Parent

Be clear with your child on what the consequences will be if they drink underage.