Friday, March 23, 2012

3/23/12: Alcohol Acts Like a Computer Virus in a Teen Brain

 Alcohol Acts Like a Computer Virus in a Teen Brain

Discussing brain science can sometimes put even seasoned professionals to sleep, but understanding this material is crucial in making the case for youth delaying drinking. This week I was looking for ways to explain the effects of alcohol on the developing brain.

I found a great resource at, a site is sponsored by the state of Utah. While the site is designed primarily for parents, I recommend it to educators, human services providers and all those interested in alcohol prevention.

Among the wealth of materials on this site, I found a wonderful series of brain science lessons entitled How Alcohol Can Damage a Teen’s Developing Brain Causing Brain Impairment and Early Addiction at This lesson packet contains posters, lesson plans, worksheets and a fact sheet from the AMA. The lessons are grounded in research and a bibliography is provided.

One of the lessons used an analogy that I think is brilliant in discussing this topic with teens: Alcohol acts like a computer virus in a teen brain!

The lesson explains the role of the prefrontal cortex in governing good judgment, planning ahead, decision-making and impulse control, helping youth to avoid antisocial behavior and become thoughtful, responsible adults. The majority of prefrontal cortex brain wiring takes place during the ages of 12 to 16, and continues to develop until about age 24.  The hippocampus is responsible for learning and memory, and goes through a developmental “spurt” during the ages of 12 to 24.

The lesson goes on to explain that alcohol is a chemical which, if consumed before our brains are fully developed, interferes with chemical neurotransmitters and damages our brain neuron wiring. Alcohol acts like a computer virus in our brain. It slows or shuts down brain activity, thus keeping a teen brain from making connections and properly wiring. Drinking alcohol as a teen is like turning off the power when you are trying to download new software.

What would happen if you had a power-outage right when you were trying to load new software on your computer? It wouldn’t be there when the power came on.

Alcohol acts the same way on a still-developing brain. Important neural connections that we need to be a responsible, thoughtful adult may not be wired into our brains, making life more difficult for us, and those who will depend on us. We may be harmed in ways we cannot predict, becoming less than we could be.
Alcohol damage can cause young people to:
- develop social problems.
- have poor judgment.
- get into trouble.
- struggle in school.
- experience failure in achieving life-long goals.
Most alcohol brain damage doesn’t show up right away, until your brain is needed to handle complex jobs or relationships, and then it may be too late. Why is it important for teens to understand brain development and wiring? So they can protect their brain while it is developing.

Alcohol use not only harms a teen’s brain wiring, it also hijacks the brain’s pleasure-reward system, causing the brain to crave alcohol pleasure and leading to a great increase in the risk of alcohol addiction. 40% of kids who begin drinking at age 15 will become alcohol dependant as adults.

I hope that you find this analogy, and the rest of the materials at, as helpful as I did!


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