Save Brains

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Save Brains is a campaign designed to educate youth and parents about alcohol’s effects on the developing adolescent brain. A significant amount of research shows a link between youth alcohol use and the damaging impact it has on brain development.


Click on the boxes below to learn how alcohol affects various parts of the brain.


Click here to download our Save Brains brochure in Spanish.

Central Nervous System

The body’s “control center” that regulates motor function, thinking and reasoning.


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Central Nervous System

Part of the brain: Central Nervous System

Location: Includes the brain and spinal cord, as well as the nerves that come from them

Function: The Central Nervous System’s responsibilities include transporting information through the senses, motor function, thinking, understanding and reasoning. It also controls emotional responses.

Effects of alcohol: Alcohol is a depressant, so it makes the nerve cells in the brain slow down, which is indicated by altered speech, slowed reaction time, impaired vision and weakened muscles. The quantity and pace of drinking alcohol will impact how much brain activity slows down. Size, weight, gender and genetic makeup of the individual drinking are also important factors. When a person thinks of completing an action with their body, the Central Nervous System sends messages to that part of the body to complete the action. However, when under the influence of alcohol, the Central Nervous System is slowed, which makes the person think, speak and move at a slower pace.

Why it’s important: Impaired judgment, slowed reaction time and weakened control of body functions increase the risk of having an injury or accident when under the influence, especially when operating a vehicle. Alcohol takes three to five days to leave the Central Nervous System.

Sources: American Association for the Advancement of Science (2016), Dalal & Kar (2014), Mukherjee (2013), Norton (2013), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA] (2014)

Frontal Lobe



Responsible for higher cognitive functions like judgment, behavior and emotion.


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Frontal Lobe

Part of the brain: Frontal Lobe

Location: Entire front section of brain consisting of two sub-sections, directly behind forehead

Function: The Frontal Lobe is responsible for controlling judgment, behavior and emotion. This part of the brain is essential for planning, forming ideas and decision making. When an individual is presented with a complex problem, this part of the brain organizes responses, plans next steps, searches memory for a similar experience, adapts strategies to reflect the current situation, uses verbal skills to guide behavior and houses working memory.

Effects of alcohol: A significant effect of alcohol in the Frontal Lobe is impairment in emotional functioning. A person may find it difficult to control their emotions and urges, and they may act without thinking or may even become violent. Noticeable effects on this part of the brain when under the influence of alcohol include loss of reason, caution, rationality and normal thought processing.

Why it’s important: Frontal Lobe development of adolescents is incomplete, which decreases their ability to make fully rational decisions about alcohol use. It is the last part of the brain to mature, which occurs around age 25. When alcohol is introduced to this part of the brain, teens may make irrational and unusual emotional decisions that they wouldn’t make otherwise. They do not always consider the consequences of their actions and can become even greater risk-takers. In addition, even small amounts of alcohol consumption over time can alter the frontal region in the brain, resulting in difficulties with impulse control and executive functioning later in life.

Sources: The BrainWaves Center (2013), Luciana et al. (2013), Lyvers et al. (2011), Silveri (2012)

Prefrontal Cortex & Ventral Striatum


Essential pieces of the brain’s reward system that regulate impulsive behavior.


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Prefrontal Cortex & Ventral Striatum

Parts of the brain: Prefrontal Cortex & Ventral Striatum

Location: Very front of the brain, directly behind the forehead

Function: The Prefrontal Cortex is responsible for abstract thinking and thought analysis, in addition to regulating behavior. This part of the brain plans complex behavior and decision making and plays a major role in information processing. The Ventral Striatum is interconnected with the limbic system and is involved in some emotional responses, particularly those having to do with pleasure and behavioral motivation. Both the Prefrontal Cortex and Ventral Striatum have connections that make up the brain’s reward system and control impulsive behavior.

Effects of alcohol: In a person under 21 years of age, drinking alcohol can affect these parts of the brain, which are not yet finished developing. The late maturation of these parts of the brain allows for vulnerability in adolescents, and exposure to alcohol impacts cognitive function more than it does in adults. These parts of the brain are affected first by alcohol, causing behavior to become looser and less guarded quickly after the first drink is consumed. When influenced by alcohol, these areas of the brain are associated with impulsivity, poor decision making, externalizing symptoms, aggressiveness and sensation seeking. At this age, because the Prefrontal Cortex matures later than other areas, adolescents have an increased drive to seek rewarding outcomes, especially immediate rewards including their body’s response to alcohol.

Why it’s important: As a result of alcohol’s effects on these parts of the brain, teens may act impulsively and do things they would not do under normal circumstances. Alcohol plays a major role in increasing risky behavior.

Sources: American Association for the Advancement of Science (2016), Court (2013), Dalal & Kar (2014), Little et al. (2012), Lisdahl et al. (2013), Norton (2013)


Responsible for storage of long-term memories and helps with spatial navigation.


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Part of the brain: Hippocampus

Location: Near the center of the brain

Function: The Hippocampus is part of the brain’s limbic system and is responsible for learning and making memories. The Hippocampus allows us to live in the present and not get stuck in old memories. (It is among the first parts of the brain to decline in Alzheimer’s.) It also controls the fight or flight response in survival.

Effects of alcohol: Significant structural and functional changes can occur in the Hippocampus from binge drinking alcohol. While some factors indicating problematic alcohol use, such as poor decision making, may be present prior to drinking, all adolescents who drink may diminish their quality of decision making and have poorer performance and learning outcomes. Just after one or two drinks, alcohol can make it hard for a person to remember new information, such as someone’s name. Heavy drinking in a short amount of time can cause a blackout and erase memories of when the drinking occurred. In addition, due to its function of storing and retrieving memories, the Hippocampus uses that information to determine if there is a threat and whether the fight or flight response should be initiated. When impacted by alcohol, the Hippocampus may be unable to retrieve memories to determine if there is a dangerous situation.

Why it’s important: It is difficult to learn and hold on to knowledge if alcohol damages the Hippocampus. If teens aren’t able to store new information and learn new skills, it can significantly affect their school performance and ability to meet goals. Also, a slow response time in a fight or flight situation could be life threatening.

Sources: The BrainWaves Center (2013), Dalal & Kar (2014), Malone et al. (2014), Norton (2013), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA] (2014)



Coordinates motor output, which regulates movement, balance and posture.


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Part of the brain: Cerebellum

Location: Behind top part of the brain stem

Function: The Cerebellum coordinates and regulates muscular activity. It works with other areas of the brain to control movement, posture and balance, as well as complex motor functions. The Cerebellum is also important for emotional and intellectual awareness.

Effects of alcohol: The ethanol that is in alcohol has a toxic effect on the Cerebellum because the cells found in the Cerebellum are so sensitive. The main effect that alcohol has on the Cerebellum is decreasing motor function and reaction time. This can cause a person to experience difficulty standing or walking in a straight line. Memory, reward, motivation and drive are drastically altered, and cognitive control is diminished when alcohol interacts with the Cerebellum. Alterations to the Cerebellum can also influence addictive disorder. Structural deficits in the Cerebellum have been frequently associated with alcoholism, which significantly impacts executive function.

Why it’s important: When alcohol enters the Cerebellum, it interrupts functions that are essential to controlling an individual’s body and being aware of environmental surroundings. This increases the risk of injuring oneself or having an accident when under the influence.

Sources: Association for the Advancement of Science (2016), Dalal & Kar (2014), Fitzpatrick & Crowe (2013), Moulton et al. (2014), Norton (2013)



Controls autonomous nervous system, influencing sleeping, eating and body temperature.


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Part of the brain: Hypothalamus

Location: Center of the brain, under the thalamus

Function: The Hypothalamus is responsible for homeostasis, general body function, endocrine functions, sexuality and circadian rhythms.

Effects of alcohol: Alcohol impairs the regulation of several functions of the Hypothalamus. Drinking alcohol increases blood pressure, hunger, thirst and the urge to urinate, while it decreases body temperature and heart rate. The Hypothalamus is charged with releasing hormones in response to stress and other stimuli in the body, which influences basic behavioral and physiological functions. Several studies indicate that significant physiological concerns may occur because exposure to alcohol blunts the negotiator for stress in the Hypothalamus, which may offset the brain’s ability to appropriately respond to mental or emotional strain or tension. 

Why it’s important: It is a common misperception that drinking alcohol will reduce or eliminate feelings of stress. However, the research is clear that drinking alcohol actually produces physiological stress. Adolescence can be a very stressful time due to peer influences, school workloads and developing a sense of self. It is very important that teens do not engage in drinking to reduce stress, as it can produce a cyclical effect that actually increases stress and alters their ability to manage it.

Sources: Court (2013), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism [NIAAA] (1996), Oscar-Berman & Marinkovic (2003), Simms et al. (2014), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA] (2014)




Regulates heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and some reflexes.


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Part of the brain: Medulla

Location: Lower section of the brain stem, just above the spinal cord

Function: The Medulla is responsible for controlling the body’s automatic actions like consciousness, heartbeat, breathing and regulation of body temperature.

Effects of alcohol: During heavy drinking, the functions this part of the brain is responsible for may slow or stop working altogether, which can endanger a person’s life.

Why it’s important: Even if a person thinks they have control of alcohol’s effects on their body, the effects on this part of the body are very dangerous. Alcohol’s depressant effects on the Medulla are often responsible for alcohol poisoning and overdose fatalities.

Sources: Association for the Advancement of Science (2016), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA] (2014)

Reticular Activating System

Plays role in sleeping and waking, breathing, heart function and behavioral function.


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Reticular Activating System

Part of the brain: Reticular Activating System

Location: Network of neurons in the brain stem

Function: The Reticular Activating System is responsible for the regulation and transitions of sleeping and waking.

Effects of alcohol: Alcohol consumption disrupts the quality of sleep a person needs to maintain health. Alcohol interrupts the sequence of healthy sleep by reducing the duration of rapid eye movement (REM), the deep sleep stage that is necessary for the body to repair and build energy. It is necessary for the brain to go through each stage of sleep to maintain well-being. When the REM stage is interrupted, poor quality sleep is a consequence regardless of the amount of time spent sleeping. In addition, when this system interacts with alcohol, it can become depressed, causing a person to black out.

Why it’s important: Problematic sleep quality may lead to sleep disorders, which are directly linked to increased risky behavior. Also, when the Reticular Activating System is depressed to the point of a person blacking out, there is an increased risk of having an injury or accident.

Sources: Association for the Advancement of Science (2016), Pavlović & Đinđić (2014)




References for information obtained to support Save Brains campaign.


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Save Brains Website References

American Association for the Advancement of Science. (2016). Alcohol and your brain. Retrieved January 27, 2016, from

The BrainWaves Center. (2013). Your brain and what it does. Retrieved February 5, 2016, from

Court, J. M. (2013). Immature brain in adolescence. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 49(11), 883-886. doi:10.1111/jpc.12241

Crews, F. T., Sarkar, D. K., Qin, L., Zou, J., Boyadjieva, N., & Vetreno, R. P. (2015). Neuroimmune function and the consequences of alcohol exposure. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 37(2), 331-351.

Dalal, P. K., & Kar, S. K. (2014). Impact of alcohol on the developing brain. International Journal of Nutrition, Pharmacology, Neurological Diseases, 4(5), 1-5. doi:10.4103/2231-0738.147454S1

Fitzpatrick, L. E., & Crowe, S. F. (2013). Cognitive and emotional deficits in chronic alcoholics: A role for the cerebellum? Cerebellum, 12(4), 520-533. doi:10.1007/s12311-013-0461-3

Lisdahl, K. M., Gilbart, E. R., Wright, N. E., & Shollenbarger, S. (2013). Dare to delay? The impacts of adolescent alcohol and marijuana use onset on cognition, brain structure, and function. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4(53), 1-19. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00053

Little, K., Hawkins, M. T., Sanson, A., Toumbourou, J. W., Smart, D., Vassallo, S., & O’Connor, M. (2012). The longitudinal prediction of alcohol consumption-related harms among young adults. Substance Use & Misuse, 47(12), 1303-1317. doi:10.3109/10826084.2012.699577

Luciana, M., Collins, P. F., Muetzel, R. L., & Lim, K. O. (2013). Effects of alcohol use initiation on brain structure in typically developing adolescents. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse: Encompassing All Addictive Disorders, 39(6), 345-355. doi:10.3109/00952990.2013.837057

Lyvers, M., Duff, H., & Hasking, P. (2011). Risky alcohol use and age at onset of regular alcohol consumption in relation to frontal lobe indices, reward sensitivity, and rash impulsiveness. Addiction Research & Theory, 19(3), 251-259. doi:10.3109/16066359.2010.500751

Malone, S., Luciana, M., Wilson, S., Sparks, J., Hunt, R. H., Thomas, K. M., & Iacono, W. G. (2014). Adolescent drinking and motivated decision-making: A cotwin-control investigation with monozygotic twins. Behavior Genetics, 44(4), 407-418. doi:10.1007/s10519-014-9651-0

Moulton, E. A., Elman, I., Becerra, L. R., Goldstein, R. Z., & Borsook, D. (2014). The cerebellum and addiction: Insights gained from neuroimaging research. Addiction Biology, 19(3), 317-331. doi:10.1111/adb.12101

Mukherjee, S. (2013). Alcoholism and its effects on the central nervous system. Current Neurovascular Research, 10(3), 256-262.

National Geographic. (2016). Brain. Retrieved February 5, 2016, from

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism [NIAAA]. (1996). Alcohol and stress. Alcohol Alert, 32. Retrieved from

Norton, M. [centerpointgvl]. (2013). Alcohol and the adolescent brain [Video file]. Retrieved January 27, 2016, from

Oscar-Berman, M., & Marinkovic, K. (2003). Alcoholism and the brain: An overview. Alcohol Research & Health, 27(2), 125-133.

Pavlović, M., & Đinđić, B. (2014). Alcohol consumption habits and sleep quality. Acta Medica Medianae, 53(2), 10-15. doi:10.5633/amm.2014.0202

Silveri, M. M. (2012). Adolescent brain development and underage drinking in the united states: Identifying risks of alcohol use in college populations. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 20(4), 189-200. doi:10.3109/10673229.2012.714642

Simms, J. A., Nielsen, C. K., Li, R., & Bartlett, S. E. (2014). Intermittent access ethanol consumption dysregulates crf function in the hypothalamus and is attenuated by the crf- r1 antagonist, cp-376395. Addiction Biology, 19(4), 606-611. doi:10.1111/adb.12024

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA]. (2014). Alcohol and the developing brain. Retrieved January 27, 2016, from


Save Brains Brochure References

CASAColumbia. (2011). National study reveals: Teen substance use america’s #1 public health problem. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Fact sheets – underage drinking. Retrieved from

Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. (2011). Adult-supervised drinking in young teens may lead to more alcohol use, consequences. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from

Kaynak, O., Winters, K. C., Cacciola, J., Kirby, K. C., & Arria, A. M. (2014). Providing alcohol for underage youth: What messages should we be sending parents? Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 75(4), 590-605.

Medical Care Development, Inc. (2009). Underage drinking: Myth vs. reality [PDF document]. Retrieved from

Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation [PIRE]. (n.d.). Retrieved November 2009, from

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention [OJJDP]. (2012). Effects and consequences of underage drinking. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Retrieved from

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