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Most of us know that drugs and alcohol are injurious to health. They are bad for our bodies, and bad for our emotional and mental health. However, how do drugs affect the brain during the teen years?
Why Is Brain Development Crucial During Teenage Years?
Adolescence is a critical stage of brain development. During these years, teens’ personalities are emerging they are effectively growing into who they will be for the rest of their lives. Teens are also learning many new skills and developing the capacities they need to become well-adjusted, responsible adults. Teenage brains are more adaptable to all types of experiences, and it is easier for them to learn new things at this stage than it will be for them as adults. But this also makes them more driven to try mind-altering substances and more vulnerable to sustaining harm as a result.
Right now, you may have a teenager who is experimenting with drugs or staying out late at parties with alcohol. You may be concerned about his or her health, but may dismiss this substance use as “just a phase.” Maybe you are looking to learn more about teenage drug use, wondering how exactly drugs affect the brain of a teenager. As a parent, it is important to get educated about how do drugs affect the brain of teenagers, so that you can take the proper steps to get your teen back on track.
We often hear from teenagers (and parents) who justify early drug use as an experimental phase. You likely have heard from your own teen that “everybody” is drinking and using drugs. In some sense, this is true, and your teen is certainly not alone. Across the world, more than 27 percent of high schoolers have used an illicit drug in the past year, with marijuana being the most common.
However, the frequency of drug abuse among teenagers does not make it okay. The risks are great, yet often overlooked. Throughout the nation, 10 million young people (ages 12 to 29) need substance abuse treatment. This is because of the very negative effects that early drug use had on their brains. If you are wondering, “How do drugs affect the brain of a teenager?”
As parents, you likely know the importance of a child’s toddler years and how their brains are developing and making connections at rapid speeds. Early childhood is one of the most crucial phases of learning and brain development, but what many do not know is, so is adolescence. In adolescence (from age 13 up to a person’s mid-twenties), the brain goes through another wave of major, dynamic changes.
It is during this time that the brain conditions itself for future experiences. It prunes back the brain cells that get used the least and strengthens the cells and connections that are most engaged. If a teenager is taking several science courses, for example, but dropped their piano class years ago, their connections to music might get pruned away, while their knowledge (and retention) of the sciences might grow.
It is for this reason that adolescence is considered the most critical window for learning. The brain is still malleable, and highly capable of absorbing new things. As seen in the example above, the knowledge that is obtained and emphasized from ages 13 to 25 will be strengthened and retained for the future. However, the knowledge that is not utilized will dissipate. As a parent, it is important to ensure your teen is gaining positive learning experiences because what he or she learns now will shape his/her success down the road.
Not only is the teenage brain going through major developmental changes, but it is also unique in its level of maturity and capability. The frontal lobe of the brain, the brain’s thinking centre, which is responsible for decision-making, problem-solving, judgment, and self-control is not fully mature in adolescence. In fact, this lobe is the last to mature and does not usually happen until age 25. That said, teenagers neurologically are more likely to engage in risky behaviours. You may have noticed your teen has:
Difficulty controlling or holding back his/her emotions
An inclination towards high-excitement, yet low-effort activities
More impulsive and risky behaviours (e.g., drinking and drug use)
Poor planning and judgment (e.g., rarely thinking of negative outcomes)
Due to hyper-rational thinking and lack of impulse control, teenagers seek thrilling experiences at the moment but are not always able to weigh the consequences that may result. Teens also have baseline levels of dopamine in their brains, meaning they are bored and seek thrilling experiences more often. In adolescence, excitement is much more rewarding than in adulthood, reinforcing a teen’s inclination to do these things again. That is where the high risk of substance use comes into play.
One aspect of a healthy brain’s complexity is its delicate balance of chemicals that keep the body and mind functioning normally. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters, and they carry messages between nerve cells and neurons, or nerve endings. Everything a person thinks and feels including their mood, energy level, consciousness, memory, ability to feel pleasure, and need for food and rest is affected by neurotransmitters, so it’s important to keep your child’s brain healthy as they grow.
Glutamate affects your memory and thinking abilities.
Dopamine is responsible for your feelings of pleasure and reward. When you laugh or feel good, that is your dopamine at work.
Serotonin helps you sleep, and affects your appetite, arousal level, and mood.
Norepinephrine/noradrenaline helps you deal with stress.
Epinephrine/adrenaline which interacts with norepinephrine/ noradrenaline, also helps you deal with stress.
Oxytocin helps you relax, socially bond, and maintain a reproductive drive.
Endorphins reduce your feelings of pain and stress.
Overall, these chemicals help you stay healthy and have feelings that are appropriate for whatever experiences you are exposed to. When you are in danger, your brain should make you feel scared, and give you a burst of energy the fight or flight response. When you are with friends, your brain chemicals should help you feel a sense of relaxation and trust. When your body needs food, your brain should make you feel hungry. And when your body needs rest, your brain should help you feel tired and ready to go to sleep.
Overall, these brain chemicals are designed to help you take care of yourself to eat right, sleep right and form social connections. Your brain chemicals, when working correctly, provide you with motivation to do the things required for your survival and happiness.
Because the parts of the brain dedicated to judgment, rational decision-making, and self-control are not yet fully developed, teenagers have a higher propensity to experiment with drugs and alcohol. And because of their stage of brain development, they do not always understand the potential risks. The problem is, early drug and alcohol use in adolescence and young adulthood bears the greatest risks, particularly the risk of chronic addiction. More on that in a minute.
When a teenager uses drugs, the drugs get absorbed into the bloodstream and carried to various organs, including the brain. When drugs enter the brain, they interfere with its normal processing, including the development of cells and the function of the brain’s neurotransmitters, such as dopamine.
Dopamine is the chemical in our brains that allows us to experience pleasure or feel good. It reinforces reward. For example, when we eat food, dopamine is released telling us that food makes us feel good and that we must continue to eat to feel satisfied and to survive. But when drugs enter the brain, they release an excessive amount of dopamine and overload the body with pleasurable feelings. The human brain, at any stage of development, is wired so that we repeat activities associated with great pleasure and reward. It is wired to feel as though these pleasurable activities are life-sustaining. Because teenagers have a greater tendency to seek pleasurable activities already (and a reduced ability to measure the consequences), they are highly vulnerable to the temptations of drugs and alcohol.
When drugs are used repeatedly, they make lasting changes in the brain and the way it functions. But when teenagers use drugs repeatedly, the consequences can be even worse. The teenage brain is learning and absorbing new behaviours. When something releases a high amount of pleasure such as drug use the brain considers that a very important activity. The brain remembers it and strengthens it, pruning back on other areas, instead. But because teenagers’ reward circuits are still being developed, their ability to bounce back to normal after using drugs is lessened, due to how drugs affect their brains.
Drugs are chemicals that tap into the brain’s communication system. Certain drugs can activate nerve cells improperly, damage brain connections, and send abnormal messages throughout our brain circuits. When drug use is introduced and repeated, the brain will send messages to the rest of the body saying that it needs the drugs to function. The body will feel this (through withdrawal symptoms, or intense cravings) and cause a user to seek out drugs once again. This is part of the addiction cycle, and therefore addiction is considered a brain disease. Users often cannot stop using drugs, even when they want to, because of the consequences that the brain and body experience.
You see, in response to an overload of dopamine, the brain will eventually send fewer “feel good” signals out to the body. This contributes to the low or down period after a drug wears off. And over time, as drug use is repeated and a user’s dopamine levels are reduced, a tolerance will build. That person will need more of the drug, more often, to feel the same pleasurable effects. This is a tell-tale sign of drug addiction, but the risks extend beyond that. Often, addicted teenagers will increase their drug dosages without thinking twice, and later overdose by taking too much.
So how do drugs affect the brain of teenagers? The impact of addiction on the teenage brain is great, in that long-term substance use can cause long-term issues with memory, learning, attention, coordination, and even IQ levels. According to one study, youth who drink heavily (20 drinks per month) or binge drink (more than 4-5 drinks on one occasion) show abnormalities in their brain structure volume, white matter quality, and activation of cognitive tasks involving attention, memory, spatial recognition, and executive functioning.
Even occasional drug use during the teenage years can cause severe effects, in that it can put a teen at an increased risk for a substance use disorder (i.e., clinical addiction). Remember, addiction is a learned disease. Introducing drug use just a few times in adolescence can put a teenager on the path to using them again (and again) in the future, assuming their brain remembers the pleasure from it.
Teenagers who begin using any addictive substance before age 18 are 6.5 times more likely to develop a substance use disorder. Those who start drinking before age 15 are 4 times more likely to become addicted than those who start at age 20 or later. 9 out of 10 people with substance addictions first begin using before they turned 18. The risk of substance addiction is highest for those who start using before their brain is fully developed.
So how else do drugs affect the brain of teenagers? In addition to the lasting cognitive effects of drugs on the adolescent brain, teenagers who use drugs or alcohol are more likely to perform poorly in school, get in trouble with the law, and have health-related, family, or social issues. However, there is hope. Teenage substance abuse and addiction is very treatable, with early intervention and professional help.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “When substance use disorders are identified and treated in adolescence, especially if they are mild or moderate, they frequently give way to abstinence from drugs with no further problems.”
If your teenager is using drugs even if recreationally, with mild or moderate use it is important to intervene. The effects of drugs on the brains of teenagers can be long-lasting if left unaddressed. Remember that you can always reach out for help.
Drug effects on developing brains - teens. Sandstone Care. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://www.sandstonecare.com/resource-library/drugs/effects-of-drugs-on-teens-developing-brains#:~:text=Drugs%20can%20also%20permanently%20change,develop%20properly%20in%20these%20areas.
Tadmin. (2021, January 26). How do drugs affect the brain of a teenager? Turnbridge. Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://www.turnbridge.com/news-events/latest-articles/how-do-drugs-affect-the-brain-of-a-teen/
Effects of drug use on the teen brain. Drug & Alcohol Rehab at Windmill Wellness Ranch. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://windmillwellnessranch.com/blog/2018/09/11/effects-of-drugs-on-the-teen-brain
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