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Prone Adolescents: How Drugs Alter the Development of the Teenage Brain

There were 2.8 million new illicit drug users in 2013 – and 54% of those users were under the age of 18.

Drug use is higher among teenagers than any other age group in the US. Because of the way our brains develop, they’re also more susceptible to the damage that drugs can have on the body.

Drugs affect the teenage brain differently than that of an adult. The effects of drugs on the brain of a teenager can have a lasting impact – which is why it’s something that should be addressed right away.

If a teenager that you love is abusing drugs, we’ll help you understand the negative impacts. Keep reading to learn more.

Understanding the Teenage Brain

Your teenage probably behaves in unpredictable and incomprehensible ways sometimes. For most teens, this can be classified as what we call normal teenage behavior – and there’s actually a biological reason for your teen to behave in the ways they do.

A human brain takes approximately 25 years to fully develop. Meaning that a teenage brain isn’t able to perform to the same level as an adult brain. But during our teenage years, we experience a huge burst of development that impacts our behavior in big ways.

That rush of development is the reason why teens behave in unpredictable ways. Some of the behavioral changes you might notice include:

  • Inability or difficulty in controlling emotions.
  • Inability to plan or think ahead and judge situations with sound reason.
  • Engagement in high-excitement and low-effort activities

One of the more potentially dangerous effects of this change in behavior is a susceptibility to risky behavior. For teens, risky behaviors often involve experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

Brain Development and Behavior

Our brains develop from back to front. It’s this biological fact that has the greatest impact on the way teenagers behave.

In adolescence, our cerebellum, nucleus accumbens, and amygdala are the first parts of the brain to develop. These parts of the human brain are responsible for physical activity, motivation, and emotions.

Over our teenage years and into our 20’s, development moves into our prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain controls both our reasoning and our impulses. The prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until around the age of 25.

So what exactly does that mean for your teens’ behavior? That their ability to reason and control their impulses isn’t yet fully developed. And it’s this fact that leads them to make risky choices and act impulsively.

How Drugs Work

Understanding the effects of drugs on the brain of a teenager means first understanding how drugs work on the brain in general. Because drugs have a negative impact on all brains, but those effects are exacerbated on a brain that’s still growing.

Our brains are essentially a collection of nerve cells that control everything from our emotions and actions to our thoughts and bodily functions. The nerves in our brain accomplish this through neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that send signals throughout the body and tell its various parts what to do.

There are many types of neurotransmitters. Some of the most important of these are the “happy chemicals” that cause us to feel satisfaction and/or pleasure. Among these types of neurotransmitters is dopamine.

Our brains are flooded with dopamine when we experience something that makes us feel good. It’s like a natural reward system that causes us to seek more of the things that give us pleasure. Drugs artificially flood the brain with dopamine.

When a person takes drugs, the euphoric effect – or the high – is the result of an overload of dopamine. As time goes on, our body becomes used to these artificial levels of dopamine and stops producing its own in the same quantities. This means that people who take drugs regularly need to continually take the drug, and take it in higher doses, in order to feel the same level of satisfaction or pleasure.

The drugs have such an effect on our brains that we experience withdrawal when we stop taking the drug. That’s because our body takes time to return to the right balance of dopamine production. This can take anywhere from hours to months and depends on the drug, the length of time it was used, as well as individual factors.

Effects of Drugs on the Brain of a Teenager

By nature, humans seek out pleasure and avoid pain. We want more of what brings us satisfaction and we find ways to satisfy our needs and desires. This skill is one that is fine-tuned during our teenage years.

But during teenagehood, the need to seek satisfaction and pleasure lacks any control. Because our prefrontal cortex (aka our voice of reason) isn’t fully developed, we may seek pleasure without considering consequences.

That means that the teenage brain is especially susceptible to partaking in drugs and alcohol. These substances activate our pleasure centers with very little effort from us. But they also carry very serious consequences.

The teenage brain is still developing and when a teenager takes drugs to feel good, it affects the body’s ability to feel good on its own. The ability to bounce back after developing dependence is compromised. This is because a brain that’s still developing is more prone to being damaged.

Using drugs during these formative years can have lasting and harmful effects on the health and wellbeing of a teen. They’re more likely to cause permanent damage with drugs. They’re also more likely to develop addictions that could affect them for the rest of their life.

Is Your Teen Using Drugs?

The teenage brain is still developing. Not only does that make them more prone to risky and unpredictable behavior, it also means that their brain is more susceptible to damage. That’s why drugs have such a long-lasting impact on the teenage brain.

If your loved one is using drugs, you might not know where to turn. Contact us to find out what steps you should take next and how to best help your loved one.

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