Healthy living

Alcohol and the developing brain

  • For children and young people under 18, not drinking alcohol is the safest choice.
  • Alcohol is a depressant that affects the brain by causing the brain to slow down.
  • Alcohol can affect your child’s brain which continues developing into their early twenties.
  • Alcohol can negatively impact on your child’s problem solving skills and performance at school.

According to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC):

  • Children under 15 are at greatest risk of harm from drinking and for this age group, not drinking alcohol is especially important.
  • For young people 15 to 17, the safest option is to delay the initiation of drinking alcohol for as long as possible.1

These guidelines are based on the best available evidence about alcohol-related harm and young people.

What effect does alcohol have on the developing brain?

The earlier a person starts drinking alcohol at harmful levels the greater the risk of changing the development of the brain. This can lead to problems with memory and learning and increases the risk of having alcohol-related problems later in life.3

Alcohol is a depressant that affects the brain by causing the brain to slow down.

This can result in:

  • slurred speech
  • confusion
  • poor vision
  • poor muscle control and judgement
  • slower reactions
  • lack of coordination
  • sleep disruption.1

While research tells us alcohol can damage the developing brain it is not clear how much alcohol it takes to do this. For these reasons, it is recommended that for under 18s no alcohol is the safest choice and that they delay the initiation of drinking for as long as possible.4

Alcohol can affect your child’s brain which continues to develop until their early twenties.

Alcohol can negatively impact on your child’s problem solving skills and performance at school as well as potentially affecting their body, mood and mental health.2

There are several parts of the brain affected by alcohol during the teenage years.

However, there are 2 areas that are most affected because of the momentous changes they are undergoing at this time. These are:

  • The hippocampus which is responsible for memory and learning. Studies of adolescents show that heavy and extended alcohol use is associated with a 10 per cent reduction in the size of the hippocampus. It also shows that the function of the hippocampus is uniquely sensitive to alcohol at this time and that alcohol may be poisonous to the nerve cells of the hippocampus causing them to be damaged or destroyed.1
  • The prefrontal lobe which is important for planning, judgement, decision making, impulse control and language is the area of the brain that changes the most during the teenage years. Research with heavy drinking adolescents shows that these young people have smaller prefrontal lobes than young people of the same age who do not drink.1

The body of research about the effects of alcohol on the developing brain is still growing.

Where to get help

  • Call one of the Alcohol and Drug Support Line 24 hour support lines (external site) – providing confidential counselling, information, advice and referral
  • For emergency or life-threatening conditions, visit an emergency department or dial triple zero (000) to call an ambulance – police are not called unless a death has occurred or ambulance officers are threatened
  • See your doctor
  • Visit healthdirect (external site) or call 1800 022 222


  1. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Commonwealth of Australia. [online] 2009 [cited 2013 March 8]. See National Health and Medical Research Council (external site).
  2. Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Fact sheet 1 – Alcohol and adolescent development. State Government of Victoria. [online] 2012 [cited 2012 Dec 24]. View the factsheet online (external PDF 306KB).
  3. Witt E. (2010) Research on alcohol and adolescent brain development: opportunities and future directions. Alcohol 2010; 4(1):119-124.
  4. Allsop S. How to set teens up for a healthy relationship with alcohol. [online] 2012 [cited 2012Dec 24]. Available from The Conversation (external site).

This information provided by

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Mental Health Commission

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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