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How Early Heavy Drinking Hurts the Brain

Visual learning and memory are affected long-term. But researchers don't recommend raising the legal drinking age.

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Parts of the brain do not fully mature until the
age of 25. Photo via

By Valerie Tejeda

01/31/13

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More and more evidence indicates that heavy drinking in your younger years has long-term effects on the brain, according to a new review of research published in the journal Cortex. The damage caused can lead to impaired visual learning and memory—functions like these are controlled by the hippocampus and frontal structures of the brain, which don't reach full maturity until the age of about 25, hence their vulnerability earlier in life. Structural signs of alcohol abuse in youth reportedly also include overall shrinking of the brain and "changes to white matter tracts." Perhaps surprisingly, the researchers don't believe that raising the legal drinking age is the answer, citing that Australian youths, despite being able to drink three years sooner than their US counterparts at age 18, the average age at which they start drinking is no lower. Instead, they emphasize the importance of identifying drinking problems early, allowing early interventions to protect young brains.

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