Childhood Traumatic Brain Injuries May Lead to Adult Alcohol Abuse

Person holding whiskey glassTraumatic brain injuries in childhood elevate the risk of abusing alcohol later in life, according to an analysis of previous research published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. The study notes about half of all traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are related to alcohol use. Children who sustain a TBI are less likely to finish school or keep a job, and they are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health or neurological condition.

Head injuries are common in childhood, particularly among young children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2009-2010, children ages 0-4 had the highest rate of brain injuries of any age group. Annually, children ages 0-14 make nearly half a million emergency department visits due to a TBI.

Childhood Brain Injuries and Adult Alcohol Abuse

The link between alcohol use and developing a brain injury is well-established, but little research has explored the link between TBI and subsequent alcohol abuse risk. Based on an analysis of previous research, the study found a clear correlation between TBI and later substance abuse, particularly of alcohol. For instance, children younger than 5 years old who experience a TBI are 3.6 times more likely to abuse substances as teenagers.

Studies of animals support this conclusion. One study found adult mice with access to alcohol drank significantly more if they had suffered a brain injury in childhood.

How a Brain Injury Increases Substance Abuse Risk

The study posits some explanations for why a TBI might lead to alcoholism. The negative effects of a TBI, which can include difficulties with relationships and employment, are also risk factors for alcohol abuse. A TBI might also change the brain. Head injury sufferers often become more impulsive. This may make them less mindful of the consequences of their actions, including excessive drinking.

Chemical changes in the brain may also alter behavior. Problems with dopamine are linked to addiction, and TBI could alter brain levels of dopamine or other neurotransmitters.

Research also supports the notion that TBI causes brain inflammation. Alcohol also causes inflammation, and some studies of animals have found inflammation can drive problem drinking.

The study’s authors emphasize that their research is provisional. More studies are necessary to establish a definite correlation between TBI and alcoholism. However, the apparent link suggests providers should treat TBI as a potential risk factor for later alcohol abuse.


  1. McKinlay, A., & Hawley, C. (n.d.). Incidence rates for traumatic brain injury in children. Retrieved from
  2. Rates of TBI-related emergency department visits by age group–United States, 2001-2010. (2016, January 22). Retrieved from
  3. Weil, Z. M., & Karelina, K. (2017). Traumatic brain injuries during development: Implications for alcohol abuse. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 11. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2017.00135

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Martina

    August 23rd, 2017 at 2:17 PM

    Are we thinking that this could be due to a search for a coping mechanism?

  • Liza

    August 24th, 2017 at 2:45 PM

    I read over this a few times and I saw that there would be an increase in impulsivity that is common in TBI patients. I can definitely see how this little piece of the puzzle could drive one’s need to drink later in life.

  • Rivers A

    August 25th, 2017 at 2:30 PM

    nothing definitive

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.