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The Effects of Drugs on Teens’ Developing Brains

Effects of Drugs on Developing Brains



The human brain is amazingly complex. Researchers have studied it for centuries, but they still don’t fully understand how it works. One aspect of the brain’s complexity is the way it develops. From the moment a child is conceived, the brain begins to grow, becoming more and more complex with time. The full development of the brain takes years. In fact, our brains don’t stop developing until we reach our mid-twenties.

Because of the brain’s complexity and its primary role in a young person’s wellbeing, it’s important for them to get enough sleep, eat nutritious food and receive medical attention for any kind of potential trauma, such as a head injury. It’s also crucial for young people to avoid substance abuse - drugs and alcohol dramatically impede the brain’s development and can cause long-term damage. In some cases, the effects are irreversible.

Brain Development During the Teen Years

Adolescence is a critical stage of brain development. During these years, teens’ personalities are emerging – they are effectively growing into who they will be for the rest of their lives. Teens are also learning many new skills and developing the capacities they need to become well-adjusted, responsible adults. Teenage brains are more adaptable to all types of experiences, and it’s easier for them to learn new things at this stage than it will be for them as adults. But this also makes them more driven to try mind-altering substances – and more vulnerable to sustaining harm as a result.

Normal Brain Function

One aspect of a healthy brain’s complexity is its delicate balance of chemicals that keep the body and mind functioning normally. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters, and they carry messages between nerve cells and neurons, or nerve endings. Everything a person thinks and feels – including their mood, energy level, consciousness, memory, ability to feel pleasure and need for food and rest – is affected by neurotransmitters, so it’s important to keep your child’s brain healthy as they grow.

Some examples of neurotransmitters are:

  • Glutamate,which affects your memory and thinking abilities.
  • Dopamine,which is responsible for your feelings of pleasure and reward. When you laugh or feel good, that’s your dopamine at work.
  • Serotonin,which helps you sleep, and also affects your appetite, arousal level and mood.
  • Norepinephrine/ noradrenaline,which helps you deal with stress.
  • Epinephrine/ adrenaline,which interacts with norepinephrine/ noradrenaline, also helping you deal with stress.
  • Oxytocin,which helps you relax, socially bond and maintain a reproductive drive.
  • Endorphins,which reduce your feelings of pain and stress.

Overall, these chemicals help you stay healthy and have feelings that are appropriate for whatever experiences you’re exposed to. When you’re in danger, your brain should make you feel scared, and give you a burst of energy – the “fight or flight” response. When you’re with friends, your brain chemicals should help you feel a sense of relaxation and trust. When your body needs food, your brain should make you feel hungry. And when your body needs rest, your brain should help you feel tired and ready to go to sleep.

Overall, these brain chemicals are designed to help you take care of yourself – to eat right, sleep right and form social connections. Your brain chemicals, when working correctly, provide you with motivation to do the things required for your survival and happiness.

Why Young People’s Brains are More Susceptible to Damage Caused by Substance Abuse

The human brain is made up of cells called neurons. These cells are protected by a substance called myelin, which acts as a sort of insulator to the messages that come to your brain. The older you are, the more “insulated” you are from brain messages – that is, the better you’re able to handle them. But in teens, the protective properties of myelin haven’t been fully developed, so they receive more intense messages. When teens experience pleasure, that sensation is more intense in their brain than in the brain of an adult. Conversely, when teens feel sadness, it’s also experienced more intensely.

And because of the myelin level of the teen brain, drugs have more intense effects on teens than they do on adults. So when they use substances like marijuana, opioids or amphetamines, their brains’ reward systems are triggered more powerfully – which also puts teens at greater risk for addiction.

How Certain Drugs Affect Brain Development

As your teen’s brain develops, drugs can damage the way they process their experiences, both in the short- and long-term. The specific effect depends on the type of drug being used. There are three main categories of drugs, each with a different set of effects on the brain:

  • Stimulantscause adolescents’ brains and the rest of their nervous system to become excited and function unnaturally fast. When young people use stimulants, their brains produce an unnatural amount of energy, causing their heart to race, their body temperature to rise and their breathing to speed up.
  • Depressantscause teens’ brains and the rest of their nervous systems to slow down. When someone uses depressants, their energy level decreases, their breathing and heart rate slow down and their body temperature lowers.
  • Hallucinogensaffect the brain’s perception of reality. Teenagers who use hallucinogens can have delusional thoughts, and they see, hear, feel and taste things that aren’t really there.

One reason these drugs cause these problems for the brain is their effect on neurotransmitters, or the chemicals that carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body. When a young person uses drugs, their delicate balance of neurotransmitters is lost, and the reward pathways of the brain are altered.

For example, many drugs unnaturally deplete the brain’s production of dopamine, serotonin and endorphins (the chemicals that produce happiness and pleasure). As a result, drugs cause the brain to reward the person for taking drugs – and not for healthy eating, sleeping, healthy social interaction and other vital aspects of life. If these reward pathways of the brain continue to be altered due to repeated drug use, effects on a young person’s wellbeing can be overwhelming and long-lasting.

Drugs can also permanently change the brain’s prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain helps you think ahead, make smart decisions, interact with others in healthy ways and control yourself. When a teen uses certain drugs, their brain will fail to develop properly in these areas.

Cognitive Effects of Drug Use in Teens and Young Adults

As teens use drugs, they generally lose abilities in several critical areas of brain development, including the following:

  • The ability to control their impulses
  • The ability to experience pleasure and reward
  • Sensory perception
  • Emotional development
  • Decision-making skills
  • The ability to plan or think ahead
  • The ability to complete tasks
  • Memory
  • Learning new things

The longer drug use continues, the higher the risk will be of these traits continuing for a lifetime. The permanent results of repeated drug use can be as follows:

  • Lower IQ
  • Permanent loss of memory
  • Lower speed of processing information
  • Loss of coordination
  • Slower reaction time
  • High risk of dependency and addiction
  • Additional mental health disorders

Long-Term Risks of Impaired Brain Development

If your teen’s brain is affected long-term because of repeated drug use, they may have a hard time solving problems. They will also struggle to remember things, and their emotional development will be impaired. They may also struggle with motivation, and could even become disruptive and violent.

If drug use continues, they’ll face a higher risk of encountering challenges in school, like difficulties with paying attention, struggles with grades and social problems. These issues could lead to lower test scores and the need to repeat classes. Beyond school, the concerns resulting from impaired brain development could include your child’s ability to get a job, perform well, get into college and maintain healthy relationships. Long-term drug use is also associated with higher crime, risky sexual behavior and additional types of substance abuse.

A final long-term effect of drug use on the brain is the increased risk of mental health disorders. Young people who use drugs are more likely to have anxiety disorders, mood disorders such as depression and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.

Getting Help for Substance Abuse

If you suspect that your teen is abusing drugs, it’s important to help them as soon as possible, because the risk of impaired brain development is too great. If they have developed dependence or addiction to drugs, it’s urgent that they get professional treatment as soon as possible.

At Sandstone, our caring, compassionate staff has experience helping countless teens get back on track. We provide a safe, nonjudgmental space for teens and their parents to open up about their problems – call us today at 888-850-1890 to learn how we can help.

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