Brain Development, Alcohol and Athletics

A brief look into brain development in adolescents and the introduction of substances like alcohol and even how they may affect athletics.

Brain Development, Alcohol and Athletics

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of travelling to Washington D.C. to attend the National Leadership Forum, a conference held by Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA). The forum was a four day conference geared towards learning the latest strategies to fight substance abuse, listen to experts in the field as well as a chance to meet with and speak to policymakers.

Much of the workshops I attended were focused on alcohol prevention, as well and brain development. CADCA did a great job of presenting “the science behind” in their presentations and my favorite of the week was Dr. Rubin Baler, a scientist specializing in Neurobiology of Drug Abuse and Addiction with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Over the past few years working at Lahser I have forced myself to become more and more educated with the brain, but more with how it is affected by athletics and more importantly how the brain functions as a result of a concussion and after. After my week at CADCA I have become even more obsessed (in a good way) with the brain, not only with athletics but also the effect of alcohol on the adolescent brain and even the effect on the young brain when athletics are involved.

Brain Development

Brain development occurs over the first 20 years of life or so. Each individual is extremely unique and development may not follow a perfect linear path as we may think it does. Learning to walk and talk and read and write occurs over the first few years of life while later in life (teen years) children learn to formulate proper communication skills, habits and advanced skills.

One of the final parts of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The PFC has major implications of planning, cognitive behavior, social behavior, decision making and personality expression.

The amygdala, as small as it is, is extremely important with its connection to processing memory, emotional response and also its connection to the PFC and formation of habits, good or bad.

As advanced and vast the brain is, it really only has 3 basic directives. The brain has basic drives to eat, be aware and reproduce. Evolutionally, the brain has only needed to do that up until the past 100 years or so. Simply, in the past (pre-1980’s as the kids think of prehistoric now) all we needed to do was to hunt for food, be aware of our surroundings for predators and to reproduce. Now food is readily available, video games are all you need to be aware of and why reproduce when you can just jump online and have multiple relationships through online dating.

Basically over time the brain has been able to keep up with its environment up until now where the environment has evolved much faster than the brains ability to evolve. The easiest way to experience this is to see how the rate of obesity has dramatically risen over the past 40 years.

Origins of Addiction and the Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

So why is the PFC and amygdala so important to adolescent behavior and alcohol abuse or addiction? Between the years of 14 or 15 to around 20 or 21 many of our habits are forming. The introduction of substances that alter mood and behavior at that time, even though it may not present immediately, over time people become conditioned to that adverse trait like alcohol abuse.

A simple and personal example for me; in the spring of 2001 the movie, “The Fast and the Furious” came out and I, an impressionable 18 year old thought it was a great and safe idea to drive like the characters in the movie. So how did that affect me in the future? Well as an officer from Sterling Heights can tell you from not too long ago, my driving habits have not changed and I will be fighting a 15 mph over speeding ticket here soon.

Now is my experience and example a serious condition? No, maybe not really, but you can see how the formation of bad habits in my adolescent years can attribute to future troubles. In more extreme cases we can see how beers after a Friday night game can develop into a severe habit like alcohol addiction and even heath or legal problems.

Effects of Alcohol on an injured Brain

Now it’s no secret that concussions and brain injuries have been a big deal over the past few years as we have grown to learn more and more not just about the brain but the impact of injuries on the brain itself. We also have recently learned that critical growth of the brain occurs during adolescence or the teen year, the same time when kids are engaging in sports and engaging in social acceptance practices like social interaction, parties and even experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

We also know the complications that alcohol can cause not only on general injuries but after a concussion occurs. Alcohol has a severe effect on a healing brain, let alone a normal adolescent brain.

Although there has not been much research on the topic we can easily draw conclusions as to how alcohol can negatively affect brain function as well as future growth of brain tissue and cognitive ability.


In a normal brain we see that proper communication skills, habits, advanced skills, planning, cognitive behavior, social behavior, decision making and personality expression all develop between 14 and 21. We also see that the introduction of substances like alcohol can negatively and adversely affect a developing brain. Even though we do not see immediate effects on the brain and body we see that down the road people may experience alcohol addiction or abuse problems usually in the mid 20’s to 30’s, vital organ problems during their 40’s or 50’s and other problems later in life with complications with medicine and degenerative disease that all may be attributed to the introduction and conditioning of alcohol in the adolescent years. The added factor of brain injuries can lead to advanced stages of disease and even early onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s as early as 40 years of age when coupled with alcohol abuse or addiction.

So the big question we always ask as health care professionals and more importantly as parent is what can we do? Or, does a drink every now and again really hurt? Well our job is simple and yes a drink every now and again can be detrimental.

As parents we must understand that the “Zero Tolerance” rule is not there just to stop kids from drinking “just because,” but rather because of the serious implications that it may have on our children’s future. We must realize our first goal as parents are to guide and help our children grow in an appropriate manner and to not be a friend or pal.

Later in life when your children are grown up and have made positive life decisions they will thank you, and that’s when it is more important to be a friend to your children.

Read more of John's blogs on related topics:

  • Athletics and Alcohol

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John Ciecko III February 24, 2013 at 03:36 PM
Thanks Ronald. Obviously Alcohol has a tremendous detrimental effect on people ranging from impaired decision making to organ failure in all events. My focus is with athletics as the PS4A Project Coordinator with the Birmingham Bloomfield Community Coalition but I see what you are getting at. To go off of the IQ points, it can be up to an 8 point drop after usage, especially when combined with other drugs like marijuana. There are so many things that we need to be cognizant about when it comes to educating adolescents on drugs and alcohol, most importantly we need to educate "the science behind" to give them clear reasons as to why they should abstain from use. Hopefully, eventually we can change the social norms of drugs and alcohol abuse.
John Ciecko III February 24, 2013 at 03:39 PM
Also we need to understand and change the thinking of those who are addicted to substances. We need to not think of those people as morally corrupt but rather having a mental health issue. We never get mad at people with cancer, why should we banish those with mental health issues like drug and alcohol addiction.
W.W. February 24, 2013 at 05:54 PM
Thank you Birmingham Bloomfield Community Coalition for providing and talking about his important issue. Unfortunately, here in Royal Oak, the Community Coalition is silent on the proliferation of alcohol in our community, and how it negatively impacts the youth in our community for a lifetime. So much alcohol and alcohol based events in our community has desensitized members of our community, including the youth, to the harm of not having moderation of alcohol. Obviously, alcohol is a gateway to other drugs, and it should be no surprise that Royal Oak has a larger problem with heroin than the Birmingham/Bloomfield area. Our local Community Coalition is stunningly silent on that problem, too.


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