Durban - The human brain does not stop developing until a person’s mid-twenties – meaning heavy use of alcohol under the age of 21 can damage necessary growth processes.
One of the proposals being put to the South African government by an inter-ministerial committee is that the legal age for alcohol consumption should be increased from 18 to 21 years.
Although many oppose this as a draconian law change which might not be properly enforced, there are those that feel it will only benefit future generations.
From matric rage parties to university level, vast amounts of alcohol are consumed by teenagers and early adolescents, with potentially irreversible effects to brain function.
Due to the harmful effects of liquor on young minds, South Africans Against Drunk Driving (Sadd) is one non-profit organisation that is fully in support of the proposed amendment to the law.
The organisation has been giving a voice to research that warns parents about the potential irreparable long-term damage alcohol can have on adolescent brains.
In a pamphlet entitled “Heavy alcohol use is more toxic to the under 21-year brain”, Sadd quotes professor Ian Hickie of the Brain and Mind Research, University of Sydney.
In his research, Hickie explains that teenagers who drink alcohol risk their brains not reaching full capacity.
It reads: “From 12 to 13 through to the early 20s, the brain is in a state of intense development. Through a process called ‘frontalisation’, the brain is busy forming all the critical parts it needs for learning, memory, planning, emotional stability and thinking for the rest of life.
“Once this development is complete, at about 23/24 years of age, the brain’s capacity is fixed/cannot be changed. Alcohol is a toxin which disrupts brain development.”
Because of the detrimental effects of alcohol abuse and with the hopes of decreasing deaths on the road, Sadd director Caro Smit said Sadd believed parents needed to be aware of “risky” drinking habits such as binge drinking.
“Drinking five units or more within two hours is considered binge drinking and is damaging to the brain,” said Smit.
“South Africans also drink in dangerous ways such as drinking to get drunk, or without eating.”
She said the chances of a person developing alcoholism increased by 40 percent if that person began drinking under the age of 15.
“A person’s brain can stop developing between 21 and 25 years old. Boys are slightly slower developers, and especially if they have Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, their development stops at 25 years.
“This is why Sadd believes no one should be allowed to drive taxis or buses under 25 years old.”
Claire Savage, a senior information officer at the SA National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (Sanca) in Durban, said the younger a person started drinking alcohol the more at risk they were of impairing cognitive development.
“Alcohol is a central nervous system sedative or depressant drug. Even small amounts will slow functioning of the brain.”
Savage said research suggested that, in a cruel twist of irony, early heavy drinking might even undermine the neurological capacities needed to protect oneself from alcoholism.
“Rehabilitation for chronic alcohol abuse is limited, and the amnesia and brain damage caused by the condition don’t always respond to treatment,” Savage said.
Dr Marion Sinclair, co-ordinator of Road Safety Research in the Department of Civil Engineering at Stellenbosch University, echoed Savage’s comments stating the impacts on long-term alcohol abuse, particularly when starting from a young age, range from short-term memory loss and blackouts to brain shrinkage or damage to fibres that convey information between brain cells.
“The processes of brain development are still being researched and we do not yet have a definitive answer to the question of how alcohol affects young people’s brains specifically, but we are starting to see evidence that alcohol not only damages brain tissue, but affects the normal development of brain functions that should naturally be occurring at this age,” she said. - Daily News