NC Capitol

NC Capitol

Duke, UNC research to aid state battle against underage drinking

Posted February 10, 2016 6:52 p.m. EST

— Researchers from Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill presented a report Wednesday on the effects of alcohol on the brains of young people to the Governor’s Substance Abuse and Underage Drinking Prevention and Treatment Task Force.

Gov. Pat McCrory requested the report in December.

The report, "Alcohol & The Adolescent Brain: Immediate Impairment, Long-Term Consequences," details the unique characteristics of the developing adolescent brain and how alcohol affects it differently than it affects the brain of an adult.

"We need to help parents understand the effects of alcohol on their child’s greatest asset, their developing brain, and how they can help protect it by having conversations with their children about the dangers of underage drinking," McCrory said.

According to the report, adolescents are less sensitive to the sedative effects of alcohol than adults, making them more likely to binge drink, which can lead to risky behavior, violence, unsafe sex and blackouts. Scientific evidence shows that underage drinking can damage the parts of the brain responsible for judgment, reasoning, impulse control, learning and memory, because the brains are still developing and forming internal connections, the researchers said.

"Adolescent brains are not the same as adult brains. Their brains aren’t broken; they’re a work in progress," said Wilkie "Bill" Wilson, research professor of prevention science in Duke's Social Science Research Institute. "It becomes the job of responsible adults in kids’ lives to help provide the restraint that their own brains often can’t."

Most parents understand the short-term risks of underage drinking, Dr. Cynthia Kuhn said, but they often don't understand the long-term risks, including depression, memory problems and addiction later in their child's life.

"People are sitting there as parents, saying, 'I have a drink of wine. I only have one. It's all I do. How do I tell my kid they can't do what I do?'" said Kuhn, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, psychology and psychiatry at Duke Medical Center. "Well, I think you can tell your kid they shouldn't have even one because their brains respond differently to alcohol, and there's a lot of data to support that."

The report will be used in statewide efforts to reduce underage drinking and to educate and encourage parents to talk with their children about avoiding alcohol consumption.