Adolescent Substance Abuse and the Brain


Adolescent Substance Abuse and the Brain

The teen years of adolescence area critical time for most, if not all people in their lives. Think about it. Life is challenging enough just dealing with fitting in and all of the changes that occur as you grow into an adult. As adolescent substance abuse continues growing, we need to understand the impact drugs may cause to developing brains.

For example, a recent survey indicates approximately two million teens between the ages of 12 and 17 currently need treatment for a substance abuse problem, but only about 150,000 get the help they need. This high number is largely due to the fact that it is easy for teens to access many kinds of drugs but trying anything just once can lead to drug addiction. Teens are often much more experimental and willing to try anything their friends are doing, making a dependency on cocaine, heroin, marijuana or another drug more likely to occur.

It’s important to note that an addiction to any drug or alcohol doesn’t mean you’re a bad kid. There are many aspects to a drug addiction, and even the brightest and most responsible kids can form an addiction, and often, these individuals make choices that can and will affect them for their rest of their life (whether they believe that or not).

Adolescent Substance Abuse Impact Brain Development

During these years, the brain has not yet fully finished growing, particularly the prefrontal cortex which serves as the, “Executive,” in regard to decision-making and impulse control. The first time you try any type of drug, you usually experience unnaturally intense pleasure. Drugs are chemicals, which can permanently alter the way nerve cells send, receive and process information. Each drug works differently because it has a different chemical structure.

Drugs like marijuana and heroin have a chemical structure that imitates the structure of the neurotransmitters in your brain. They fool receptors, and can lock into them to activate the nerve cells. What makes them dangerous is that they don’t work the same way that the natural neurotransmitters in your brain do, so they send abnormal messages through the brain.

Drugs like amphetamine can prevent the normal recycling of natural neurotransmitters or they may cause nerve cells to release unnaturally large amounts of neurotransmitters, which can lead to an exaggerated message sent to the brain. This ultimately wreaks havoc on the communication channels of your brain. The difference between natural neurotransmitter production and that caused by amphetamines is equal to a whisper versus someone screaming in your ear.

All drugs hijack the reward circuitry of your brain, causing abnormal and uncommonly large amounts of dopamine to flood your system. This may last longer than a natural release of dopamine and causes the high associated with drugs. During these vulnerable adolescent years this excess in dopamine will result in repeated behaviors. You may begin using drugs voluntarily, eventually the drugs alter your brain function. This impairs your ability to feel normal or to think clearly and rationally without drugs. All of this contributes to the compulsive drug use and drug-seeking behaviors that are common with teen drug addiction.

Adolescent Substance Abuse Risk Factors

Adolescent substance abuse risk factors include a history of physical and/or sexual abuse, genetic vulnerability, prenatal exposure to alcohol or other drugs, lack of parental supervision or monitoring, and association with drug-using peers also play an important role.

Studies have shown that excessive drinking, as well as abusing substances in teens can result in:

  • Delayed puberty and/or negative effects on the reproductive system
  • Lower bone mineral density
  • Higher levels of liver enzymes that indicate liver damage
  • Shorter limbs and reduced growth potential
  • Interfering with neurotransmitters and damaging connections within the brain
  • Reducing the ability to experience pleasure
  • Creating problems with memory
  • Causing missed opportunities during a period of heightened learning potential
  • Ingraining expectations of unhealthy habits into brain circuitry
  • Inhibiting development of perceptual abilities

Protective factors revolve around the individual, the family, peers, the school, and the community. Ultimately, the choice is open. I can personally attest to the issue of substance abuse in the teenage years, and the struggle of vying to get clean at an early age. It is not easy to stay away, especially for the younger generations, but it is possible. Project Courage has done an amazing job with not only treatment of substance abuse issues. But the education piece that so often is missed. Once a client has the information and knowledge as to what happens when you use or abuse substances, and how they affect you personally, the chances of success dramatically rise. We are here to help, please reach out if you or someone you know might benefit from our services.

By: Tim Harmon