"I think teenagers view alcohol — and I certainly did — as something that's very glamorous," says Toren Volkmann. The 26-year-old is now a recovering alcoholic — and he realizes there was nothing glamorous about it.
In fact, a mounting body of scientific evidence is showing that young drinkers like Volkmann may be damaging their brains.
"Heavy drinking during the teen years can exact a toll long that lasts long after the buzz wears off," says Dr. Aaron White of the Duke University Medical Center.
Researchers like White say studies now confirm that the delicate, developing teenage brain is much more susceptible than the adult brain to the toxic effects of alcohol.
"The brain is developing during adolescence," White says. "Whenever a brain is developing, it's vulnerable to the disruptive effects of alcohol. Pregnant women don't drink for that reason."
Studies show that disruption causes problems with important cognitive skills like attention, learning and memory.
"Adolescence is the most important period of life for learning," White says. "It's not the time you want to be blocking the ability of the brain to change with experience — and that's exactly what alcohol does."
Volkmann admits his memory is not very sharp. But he was thinking clearly enough to sit down with his mother and write a book together about his experience as a teenage drinker. He hopes his story will be the ultimate cautionary tale to any teenager who thinks drinking is just harmless good fun.
"I think the average family does not understand the true realities of addiction and the propensity for anyone to become addicted," he says. "It starts at a young age. That's definitely what definitely caught us off guard."
There is one bright side to this story. Teenage brains may be more easily damaged by alcohol, but they are also easier to repair — so if the problem is caught early enough, researchers say, there can be recovery, and the damage may not be permanent.