How Does Teen Drug Use Affect The Adolescent Brain?

The teenage brain is undergoing critical growth and development for the duration of the teen years. Addiction to substances during this important stage can have a profound and lasting impact on the teenage brain. From decision-making to emotional regulation, the effects of drugs on teens can greatly change the brain’s reward systems and ability to progress, all making the adolescent more vulnerable to the effects of substances. It’s vitally important to address teen substance abuse as quickly as possible with the hope of mitigating the potential negative effects of substance abuse on teen brain development and overall health. 

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Effects of Drugs on Youth

Adolescent substance use can affect the developing brain in a variety of ways, all of which harm the individual. The long-term effects of adolescent drug use include: 

Neurodevelopmental Impact

The greatest effect of drug use on the adolescent brain is the overall developmental impact. Brain growth is vital during the childhood years leading up to age 25, and substance use, especially regular drug abuse, disrupts the brain’s development.

Cognitive Impairment

Teen drug use tends to lead to long-term cognitive deficits. Memory, learning, attention, focus, information retention, and other cognitive functions are impaired due to substance use. This often leads to academic hardships and affects the teen’s concepts of school and learning. 

Emotional Dysregulation

Because the brain undergoes the most development before the age of 25, substance use greatly disrupts brain growth, most notably in the prefrontal cortex region responsible for decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation. This often leads to impaired judgment, impulsive behavior, and heightened mood swings, anxiety, and irritability. Teens using drugs struggle with making rational decisions and considering the long-term consequences of their actions. The most common results of teen emotional disturbances related to drug use are familial, legal, and social problems. Emotional dysregulation and social issues can then encourage more drug use as a coping mechanism, thereby perpetuating the substance abuse cycle. 

Physical Health Consequences

Many adolescents with substance use disorders suffer from physical health consequences such as poor nutrition, sleep disturbances, and increased risky behavior leading to accidents. These can further impact brain function and greatly affect overall well-being.

Why are Adolescent Brains More Vulnerable to Addiction? 

Rewiring of the Reward System

Pleasure and reward in the brain are associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Over time of repeated drug use, these neurotransmitters are essentially hijacked and higher levels are released, making the brain more sensitive to the substance’s effects. This is where addiction enters because the teen craves the drug for pleasure, making them more vulnerable to full level addiction. 

Escalating Tolerance and Withdrawal

At any age, with ongoing substance use, the brain develops tolerance which means the individual requires more and more of the substance to have the same pleasurable effects. Starting use at a young age only increases the likelihood of higher and higher intake. The brain is more impacted as the substance use intensifies. Additionally, withdrawal symptoms become worse and worse, contributing to the teen’s vulnerability to addiction.