Addiction: A powerful force in teen brains

drugs and teen brains

Our teen years are turbulent. Social pressure, that tireless bugbear, tends to be the chief culprit. The teen years are when we get our first taste of freedom – and responsibility. High school introduces new peer groups and social dynamics. Some get their first car or their first job. If you’re lucky, sometimes you get your first love. It’s an exhilarating time, but it’s also a frightening time where one’s social standing can change in the blink of an eye.

Simple biology plays a big role during this time as well. The often embarrassing changes our bodies undergo during this time can cause a lot of trauma. Teen brains have to manage the changes the body goes through along changes in its own structure. The teen years are fun, but they can be rough. So it’s no mystery some teens who feel overwhelmed by these changes turn to substances for relief or just to fit in.

Drugs and the teen brain

Human brains take a long time to mature. During the teen years, the brain creates new neural pathways and prunes older ones. Myelin, a fat that acts as the brain’s insulation, is created during this time but according to University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Frances Jensen, M.D., this process usually continues until a person’s mid or late 20s.

Myelin grows from the rear of the brain, leaving the prefrontal cortex for last. “The last place to be connected – to be fully myelinated – is the front of your brain,” Jensen explained in an interview with NPR. “And what’s in the front? Your prefrontal cortex and your frontal cortex. These are areas where we have insight, empathy, these executive functions such as impulse control, risk-taking behavior.” This maturing process may be why teenagers are often moody, make poor decisions and are susceptible to addiction.

Fundamentally, drugs work by rewiring the brain. Drugs interfere with the brain’s natural messaging and reward system, making it release large amounts of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical the brain uses to regulate pleasure and reward.

Over time, the brain begins to rely on substances to operate normally, which leads to addiction. Jensen describes addiction as a type of learning. “… sadly, addiction is more efficient in the adolescent brain. That is an important fact for an adolescent to know about themselves – that they can get addicted faster,” says Jensen.

The brain’s not the only thing at risk

Aside from the risks to the developing brain, drugs and alcohol can put all their users into dangerous situations regardless of their age. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that about 4,000 people under age 21 die each year from alcohol-related car crashes, poisoning and other accidents. Although the effects other drugs popularly abused by teens, like marijuana, have on the brain is a subject of some debate, teen drug use is a serious problem that can create major problems into adulthood. Helping your teen avoid the pitfalls of substance abuse starts with listening, although professional help is always an option if the problem is serious enough.

White River Academy provides a therapeutic environment for teenaged boys aged 12 to 17. Our boarding school provides guidance via educational programs, instilling character values and promoting positive growth. Additionally, our parent weekends help repair family bonds and teaches new techniques to continue care after treatment. We want to help your son achieve a positive future. For more information about our programs and registration, please call  our 24/7 helpline.

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