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10-16 The relationship between executive functioning and teen alcohol use

Alcohol use during adolescence boils down to a choice. While peer pressure and accessibility may also be prime factors for alcohol consumption and possible abuse during one’s youth, a fair amount of research traces this early harmful behavior to the front of the brain, which is responsible for executive functioning.

According to JoAnn Kukulus, M.S., and MFT intern at ACS Outpatient Counseling Services, the frontal and prefrontal areas of the brain are responsible for a number of mental mechanisms collectively known as executive functions. They consist of memory, organization and time management, emotional and behavioral regulation and planning and decision-making. During adolescence, Kukulus explained that the still developing brain of a teenager is more influenced by a neurological area known as the amygdala. This part of the brain is a center for automatic processes, such as fear and aggression. This scientific finding supports the higher rate of impulsive risk taking and rebellious behaviors that are displayed by teens.

This lack of control and critical thinking can also explain the susceptibility many adolescents face in regards to alcohol experimentation and abuse. In the study, “Neuropsychological Executive Functioning in Children at Elevated Risk for Alcoholism: Findings in Early Adolescence,” lead researcher Joel T. Nigg, Ph.D., of Oregon Health and Science University and colleagues analyzed 198 boys between the ages of three and 14 for their cognitive ability and inherited risk for alcoholism. Results showed that weaker executive functioning skills were more common in families with a history of alcoholism. Although not a direct cause of future substance abuse, the experts suggested that its impact of reasoning can indirectly lead to more alcohol-related problems later in life.

More specific correlations were identified in the literature review entitled, “Executive functioning: A conceptual framework for alcohol-related aggression.” Author Peter R. Giancola, Ph.D., compiled the available scientific evidence and concluded that alcohol intoxication obstructs a person’s executive functioning, which increases the potential to exhibit aggressive behavior. Conversely, people with naturally lower executive ability are more vulnerable to aggressive behavior when they consume alcohol. In short, a bidirectional relationship between executive functioning, aggression and alcohol use exists.

As Dr. Giancola touched on in his research, alcohol consumption can have direct effects on a teen’s capacity to reason throughout adolescence and into adulthood if it begins early enough. This was further explored in the publication, “Adolescence and the Trajectory of Alcohol Use: Basic to Clinical Studies,” by Sandra A. Brown, Ph.D., and Susan F. Tapert, Ph.D., from University of California, San Diego. After observing a sample of teens and the neurological impact of alcohol use, the results showed that heavy drinking led to a hindered ability to retrieve verbal and nonverbal information as well as poorer performance on attention-based skills. The duo also found that alcohol withdrawal during adolescence “appears to uniquely contribute to deterioration in functioning in visuospatial tasks.”

Overall, a teenager’s level of conscientious decision-making is a strong determinant of how he or she behaves around alcohol, from controlling consumption to dealing with its direct effects. If you or your teen is showing signs of impulsivity, risky activity or a possibly addictive relationship with alcohol, call Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego or visit us online to get to the heart of the problem.

Written by Lee Yates, Sovereign Health Group writer

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