(From left) Patricia Hamilton, MD, Renée Jenkins, MD, FAAP, and John Kulig, MD, MPH, FAAP, were speakers at Friday's AAP Joint Program With the European Academy of Pediatrics.
The long-term affects on the brains of adolescents drinking at a younger age was examined by John Kulig, MD, MPH, FAAP, director of adolescent medicine at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center and professor of pediatrics, public heath and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston.
Researchers have determined that brain development progresses into the late 20s, with adolescents having "dramatic" changes in gray and white matter, and function, Dr Kulig
This growth peaks between ages 16 and 17 years in both males and females.
It is also known that gray matter maturation is influenced by experience and environment.
"Peer groups, family and environment have a direct effect on brain structure and function," he
said, because the "reward centers," develop earlier than the prefrontal cortex.
"This earlier development is important in adolescents and their risk behaviors," Dr Kulig
"The frontal cortex has the so-called adult functions of impulse control, working memory and judgment, and it may not mature fully until the mid-20s."
This development helps explain why sensation-seeking is an important part of adolescence, he
said, offering tips for how parents and educators could intervene to control this impulse activity.
One option could be to have rock walls for safe climbing so that adolescents could fulfill this need for sensation-seeking.
Data shows that today's adolescents, compared to earlier generations, are drinking alcohol at an earlier age and are drinking more alcohol, Dr Kulig
"Binge drinking has become a natural habit," he
"It has become an outcome of alcohol use."
Research also shows that the younger age at which adolescents begin drinking alcohol, the greater the risk of dependence on alcohol use later in life.
Adolescents who start drinking at age 13 years have a 47 percent chance of developing alcohol dependence vs. a 9 percent chance of developing alcohol dependence if they start drinking at age 21 years, Dr Kulig
Research also show that the brain's prefrontal cortex volume is smaller in adolescents who are heavy drinkers vs. those who are non-drinkers, with an even more pronounced difference in females, he
The number of studies on the influence of alcohol on the brain is growing, Dr Kulig
said, adding that researchers still do not understand the mechanisms involved in brain development or if any of the effects of alcohol consumption are reversible.