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Drugs & Teen Brain Development

Your teen’s brain is growing by leaps and bounds during these formative years, and is especially sensitive to outside influences such as substance use. When children abuse drugs or alcohol, their brain development is stunted, sometimes irreversibly.

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5 min read

How Do Drugs Impact the Brain?

A major ad campaign in the ‘80s aimed to prevent drug use by, through simply frying an egg, showing how drugs hurt the brain. “This is your brain,” said the announcer, holding up a solid egg. He then cracked it into a hot skillet and let it sizzle. He continued, “This is your brain on drugs.” While it may not be as simple as the commercial says, the basic idea is indeed true. When teens use drugs, including alcohol, the impact on the brain is significant. And occasionally, the impact is irreversible.

People who abuse (i.e. overindulge or misuse) drugs deal with serious side effects of the mind. These can include:

Allowing these harmful substances into your body does physical damage as well — the list of physical risks is endless, and includes death. But these substances attack the brain first and foremost. The harder the substances, and the longer you use them, the more you brain may resemble that fried egg from the commercial.

Different drugs have different effects. Brain scans show how the brain responds to various drugs, and the long-term differences in those who do these drugs. The most common aspects of the brain impacted are neurotransmitters (the messengers of the brain), the production of chemicals related to happiness and pleasure (dopamine and serotonin), and the prefrontal cortex (responsible for planning, decision making, self-expression and moderating social behavior).

Why Are Teens More at Risk?

A Teen Struggling with an exam

Numerous studies reveal that children and teens who abuse substances are more at risk. For instance, kids who begin drinking before age 15 are 4 times more likely to become addicted than people who start at age 21. The teenage years are paramount in our brain’s development. This is when we often develop our personality, refine our skills and take on new responsibilities. Our brains our constantly shifting during this time on their way to become fully matured, and are malleable to the things we learn and experience. This makes the teenage brain susceptible to damage from toxic chemicals. And the effects of drugs and alcohol can slow down or even stop the development in certain regions of the brain.

In teens who abuse drugs, common effects on brain development involve:

  • Impulse control
  • Ability to experience reward
  • Judgment
  • Planning
  • Completing tasks and meeting goals
  • Ability to learn and retain information

Studies show that regular marijuana use in teens changes the actual structure of the brain, and impacts areas related to memory problem-solving, which has an observable effect on cognition and academic performance. Teens who smoke pot regularly have, on average, one grade point lower than their peers. This teens lose up to 8 IQ points between childhood and adulthood. Teens who drink heavy amounts of alcohol exhibit reduced memory, attention span, information processing and executive functioning.

What Are the Long-Term Consequences?

Drugs can damage your teen's ability to learn

If your teen’s development is disrupted, their life ahead becomes rife with new hurdles. The most obvious consequence is difficulty in school. Kids who get into drugs and alcohol often become outcasts among classmates — and not simply because their reputations may suffer due to their choice of habits. As their substance use slows their brain’s development, they can have massive difficulty keeping up in class. They’ll start to see their test scores drop and their minds begin to wander during lessons. This can lead to failing report cards (or close to it), resulting in the need to repeat grades or be moved to remedial classes. Down the line, this will greatly harm their chances of getting into a good college, landing a high-paying job, and so on.

In addition to school problems (and, in some cases, because of them), these teens may develop behaviors and habits that spell danger. These can include unsafe sex, criminal behavior, and the increasing risk of doing more drugs. It can become a vicious cycle that keeps these kids from ever reaching their potential, and worse, can prevent them ever being happy or accepted by their peers.

Does My Teenager Need Rehab?

If you notice signs that your teen may be using substances, address the situation quickly, in order to prevent permanent brain damage and the many other problems that arise from substance abuse and addiction. If in fact addiction is present, drug rehab treatment may be needed. That said, your first step is to contact a treatment professional as soon as possible, who can determine the level of your child’s potential problem. This person might be your family doctor or your teen’s school guidance counselor.

We at TeenRehabCenter.org are also available to discuss your family’s situation with you, free of cost. Our compassionate treatment advisors are well-versed in chatting with parents who are concerned about their child’s substance abuse, and can offer as much or as little help as you want. Keep in mind that substance abuse issues rarely resolve themselves — take action now by calling us. It’s free, confidential and could be just what your family needs.

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