“Does alcohol actually kill brain cells or is that a myth? Like obviously if you get smashed every weekend your intelligence would definitely be affected but realistically most people in Years 11 and 12 drink because these are the most social years so is drinking like once a term or semester that bad for you?”
Alcohol killing brain cells is one of those classic myths that has been around for a long time and it is often used to help prevent young people from drinking. Of course, drinking too much alcohol, particularly when you are young, will have some impact on the brain and brain development but will having a couple of drinks permanently kill off brain cells? Absolutely not.
We know that drinking alcohol during your teen years affects brain development and it is best to delay drinking for as long as possible. Any drinking during this time can inhibit the growth of neurons and adversely impact on your ability to plan, reason and make decisions effectively in the future. Adolescent drinking may cause severe changes in the formation of adult personality, as well causing up to a 10% reduction in the size of the hippocampus, thereby reducing memory and learning capacity. We now know that young people who drink regularly, and who are affected in this way, may never be able to catch up in adulthood.
Heavy drinking during adolescence may produce permanent brain changes. ‘Plasticity’ is the term used to describe the brain’ ability to physically change its internal structure when learning new things. During peaks of plasticity, the brain must make key neural connections to wire us to become fully-functioning adults. Drinking alcohol during peak periods of plasticity may damage this ‘brain wiring’.
Research has found that alcohol can damage the dendrites located in the cerebellum (the part of the brain responsible for regulating movement), disrupting the ability of your neurons to communicate effectively. It does not, however, kill brain cells. In fact, even heavy binge drinking and long-term alcohol abuse doesn’t actually result in the death of brain cells.
We used to believe that the number of nerve cells in the brain was fixed early in life. We now know that is not true, and in fact, we continue to form new brain cells into adulthood (or ‘neurogenesis’ as it is called). Drinking to excess can interfere with and even prevent this from occurring. That said, even though alcohol does not actually kill brain cells, it can and certainly does cause ‘brain damage’, particularly when someone drinks to excess.
So if you are in your teens and just occasionally drink alcohol, is that “bad for you”? Well, it’s not going to kill any brain cells and realistically, a couple of drinks once in a while is not going to cause any ‘brain damage’. However, the less you drink during your adolescence, the better. Every time you do drink alcohol during this stage of development you lessen your potential just that little bit more …
First published: April 2019