BETHESDA, Md. (WUSA) -- Here's a sobering thought: the earlier your teenager starts drinking alcohol, the more likely he or she is to develop a dependency that could haunt them for a lifetime.
Research reveals that the brain is changing dramatically during the adolescent years-establishing critical cognitive functions like decision-making and impulse control. Alcohol can have a tremendously negative effect, just as the adolescent brain is most vulnerable.
Two starkly different side-by-side images show the brain of a 15 year-old who doesn't drink.
"Where you see a lot of color, and it's bright, it's a lot of activity. The brain is functioning, it's very active," said Dr. Aaron White, an NIH brain researcher. "The teenager who didn't drink heavily, his brain is functioning at a high level. It's very active."
A brain scan that is nearly all grey shows the brain of a 15 year-old who's a regular drinker.
"The teen who was drinking heavily is not very active. It's not functioning at a very high level," said Dr. White.
The contrast is startling. As is the impact of regular alcohol consumption on the day-to-day activities of a teenager.
"There are about a million high school students each year who consume five or more drinks, at least five times a month. As a group, they are much more likely to engage in behaviors that put themselves and other people at risk," said Dr. Ralph Hingson, one of the world's pre-eminent brain researchers.
Added Dr. White, "Their brains start to struggle at performing basic tasks like the things you would do in school such as working memory, where you have to learn some information, keep it active in memory for a little while, and use it."
"They're more likely to drive after drinking, which means they're more likely to be in crashes, they're less likely to wear safety belts," said Dr. Hingson. "They're more likely to carry weapons, they're more likely to be in fights, and not surprisingly, they're more likely to be injured in fights, they're more likely to experience sexual assaults, they're more likely to attempt suicide."
Only in recent years has research revealed that the adolescent brain is still developing from age 10 to 20, and that alcohol consumption can play a critical role.
"There are nearly 700,000 college students who are assaulted by another drinking college student every year," said Dr. Hingson, who points out, that's more than the population of Washington.
"So, imagine if everyone in the city of Washington were assaulted by a drinking college student, that would be on the front page of the Washington Post and would be on tv stories night after night after night.39 until something was done about it," he said.
Consider what's happened with tobacco: a major public health turnaround took place when people learned smokers weren't just harming themselves but others who were breathing second-hand smoke.
"I'd be willing to argue that the second-hand effects of alcohol misuse are much more immediate and much more dramatic than the second-hand effects of tobacco," said Dr. Hingson.
One case in point: 40% of the people who die in crashes involving alcohol are people other than the driver. And the younger the drinking driver, the higher the percentage of those killed or injured.
It's still unclear whether the damage alcohol causes to an adolescent brain is permanent. But one thing is clear: long-term studies that followed heavy drinkers up to 10 years after college found they were far less likely to have high-paying or prestigious jobs.
Written by Andrea McCarren
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