5 Things to Know about Drugs and Teen Brain Development

brain development and addiction

In today’s society, the average age of experimentation with drugs and alcohol is a mere 13 years old. Yet the average age of complete, human brain development is 25 years old. Keeping these facts in mind, it is time we ask ourselves, how is early drug use affecting our children? How do drugs affect brain development and what dangers do they impose on teens? Even more, what can we do to stop this trend of early substance abuse?

Let’s look at five facts every parent should know about drugs and their teen’s brain development.

1.) The brain is most malleable, most impressionable, during adolescence. This makes the teenage years the period of greatest development and enormous opportunity. The brain is undergoing rapid changes during these years. In adolescence, “wiring” takes place within the brain. This helps it develop connections to the rest of the brain so that communication signals can be transmitted efficiently throughout the body. This process continues until adulthood.

For this reason, a person’s capacity to learn is never stronger than it is in adolescence. This also means that a person’s receptivity to learned habits (including negative ones such as drug use) is also never as pronounced as it is between the ages 12 and 17. As a result, it is essential to teach teens healthy habits, regular routines, and expand their skillset during these critical years. There is great opportunity for us to assist this “wiring” process, and bestow morality and knowledge to our teens.

2.) Teenagers do not have complete control over their actions. Many people do not realize that the human brain does not fully develop until age 25. And the prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for decision-making, impulse, problem-solving, and judgment, is the last to mature. This means that teens do not have complete self-control, as their brains have not yet developed the ‘stop’ messages that tell us when to hit the brakes and truly think before we act.

Cecilia Flores, professor at McGill's Department of Psychiatry, explains, "[The prefrontal cortex’s] functioning is important for learning, motivation, and cognitive processes. Given its prolonged development into adulthood, this region is particularly susceptible to being shaped by life experiences in adolescence, such as stress and drugs of abuse. Such alterations in prefrontal cortex development can have long-term consequences later on in life."

3.) Drugs of abuse are often available to adolescents. Nearly half of high school students have already used an illicit drug in their lifetime. Despite their young age and the safety of school grounds, more and more youth are gaining access to illegal substances and drugs of abuse. Whether taking from their parents or buying from older peers, 88 percent of high school seniors say that alcohol is easy to get. 81 percent also say marijuana is just as easily accessible.

High school is a time in which teens truly start to build meaningful relationships with their peers. In efforts to fit in, however, many fall subject to peer pressure. Because their brains are not wired to say “stop” to drug use, adolescents may not fully evaluate all of the risks. They may see popularity or making friends as a high priority, and develop substance-using behaviors as a result.

4.) Drugs can severely impair cognitive function and one’s ability to learn. Research has shown that early exposure to alcohol can cause significantly more brain damage to teens than to those adults who drink. This damage is specific to one’s frontal cortex: the part of the brain that does not fully develop before age 16; the part in which learning and memory are constantly at work. According to one study, adolescents with alcohol use disorders have nearly 10 percent less volume in the hippocampus (our primary brain structure for memory), making it harder for them to learn and complete multiple tasks. This damage also pertains to adolescents using illicit substances. For example, early, regular marijuana use can cause severe declines in IQ.

There is no doubt that teen substance abuse and academics are a dangerous mix. Not only this, but heavy drug use during times of critical brain development may cause long-term, permanent damage to brain cells, cognitive capacity, and one’s ability to learn. It is vital, therefore, to address a developing substance use disorder as early as possible.

5.) Adolescents are more likely to develop substance use disorders. It is well-known that adolescents are especially susceptible to disorders such as depression and ADHD. Just as teens are vulnerable to these disorders and to developing drug-using habits, they are also extremely prone to the disease of addiction. As detailed in our infographic, The Developing Adolescent Brain and its Vulnerability to Substance Abuse, teens who begin using any addictive substance before age 18 are 6.5 times more likely to develop a substance use disorder. Even more, nine out of ten people with substance addictions first begin using before they turn 18.

The developing adolescent brain is a powerful tool, and it is one of great opportunity. Together, as parents, teachers, and addiction professionals, we can help our children beat the statistics. Together, we can help young people develop in their dreams, their skills, and their education. It is up to us to teach them about the toxic mix of drugs and brain development and help them navigate through their younger years.

If you are looking to put your teen on the path towards recovery, call Turnbridge today at 877-581-1793 to learn about our drug treatment program for adolescents and young adults.