Alcohol risk to teenage brains explained

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Alcohol risk to teenage brains explained


Published on 1 December 2014

The author of a new book that explains the workings of the teenage brain is horrified by scenes of drunken schoolies – concerned that they are exposing themselves to not only physical injuries from risky behaviour, but may also be damaging their developing brains from consuming alcohol.

USC Associate Professor Michael Nagel has written In the Middle: The adolescent brain, behaviour and learning – a book he hopes will provide some helpful answers and insights for adults struggling to understand the behaviour of teenagers.

An internationally recognised expert in human development and the psychology of learning, Dr Nagel said that even though 17 and 18 year olds might look like fully grown adults, their brains are still developing and are extremely vulnerable

“The teenage brain is actually undergoing a massive remodelling of its basic structure during the teenage years, becoming more efficient and pruning unused synaptic connections,” he said.

“An example would be those people who learn a second language as a child will have that wiring in their brain, but if they don’t use it during their later teen years they will lose it.

“Most of the hard work around neural development happens roughly from the ages of 12 to 18 or 19, but the brain is not fully mature until around 24 for women and some scientists say as late as 29 to 30 for men.”

Dr Nagel describes the frontal lobe as the ‘chief executive officer’ of the brain – the part that makes responsible decisions and regulates emotions – and the last part to mature.

“The teenage brain is hot-wired for emotion, sensation seeking and risk taking,” he said. “Add to that raging hormones and alcohol and you really exacerbate the potential for dangerous situations.

“Research also shows that teenagers are much more likely to engage in risky behaviour when surrounded by peers, so if you put thousands of drunken teenagers together it’s a recipe for disaster.”

Dr Nagel recently wrote an opinion piece on the ‘Generation Next’ blog titled Schoolies, Alcohol and the Teenage Brain: A Toxic Combination.

His book, In the Middle: The adolescent brain, behaviour and learning, is published by ACER is available in bookstores and online.

— Jane Cameron

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