The legal drinking age in the United States is 21-years-old. This can seem to be a very odd number to some people, but there are reasons behind why drinking before the age of 21 is dangerous to one’s health. By the time a person is 18 they have likely stopped growing, they are considered an adult, they can vote, drive, move out or drop out of school if they want. But they cannot legally buy or consume alcohol. This is because their brains have not finished developing until they are in their twenties. Of course, adolescents and teenagers often find ways around the age barrier, researchers from Finland have released a study showing just how damaging alcohol is to developing brains.
“The maturation of the brain is still ongoing in adolescence, and especially the frontal areas and the cingulate cortex develop until the twenties. Our findings strongly indicate that heavy alcohol use may disrupt this maturation process,” explained Noora Heikinen, author of the study.
Certain areas of the brain are responsible for certain things. There is an area devoted to hormone regulation, an area that only deals with speech. And there is an area of the brain that is responsible for impulse control. This area is called the cingulate cortex. When adolescents or teenagers consume heavy amounts of alcohol before their brain stops developing, they are damaging this part of the brain.
A malfunctioning, or inhibited cingulate cortex may lead to increasing one’s chances of developing an alcohol dependency later on in life. This is explained by MRIs that were taken in the study.
Researchers took images of groups of people who were between the ages of 13 and 18. One group admitted to heavy consumption of alcohol, while the other group abstained from alcohol. Those that consumed a lot of alcohol had a smaller volume of cingulate cortex.
Researchers also found that alcohol also seems to reduce the volume of gray matter in the insula. This would account for a decreased sensitivity to the negative consequences of alcohol. Hangovers or personal problems due to alcohol use may not resonate heavily with these type of people, also increasing the likelihood of alcohol abuse in the future.