girl thinking imaginary arrows around her head

The Adolescent Brain on Drugs


Sober Recovery Expert Author

girl thinking imaginary arrows around her head

Adolescence is a time most members of the older generations equate with high risk-taking behavior, a false sense of invincibility and a lack of common sense. A lot of the time, adults believe the reason behind it all is raging hormones, and while hormonal changes are definitely a key element of the puzzle, scientific studies provide evidence that the irrational, fast-paced moods and unsettling behavior may actually be rooted in uneven brain development [1].

Growing Pains

Recent research has discovered that the human brain is not fully matured until at least the early twenties. The last of the regions to be fully established are those responsible for judgment, problem solving skills, emotional learning, high-level self-regulation, and last but certainly not least, the reward system [1]. When we talk about the reward system in an adolescent’s brain, we are referring to a region undergoing transformation that is thought to contribute to increased risk-taking and pleasure-seeking behavior which begins to shed some light on why teens often choose to engage in mind-altering substance use [2]. But what does that mean for the brain and the future adult life of the adolescent?

The most formative years in life may also the most vulnerable to the effects of substance abuse.

Current research suggests that substance use in adolescence leads to defects in brain functioning and has potentially harmful outcomes for future academic, occupational, and social functioning extending into adulthood. Therefore, drug education is a key element in reducing drug use among teenagers. It is important that teens be fully aware of the consequences of their choices. A teenager may view adolescence as a time to be youthful and experimental but what they may not realize is that it has the potential for negative long-term effects.

Younger and More Reactive

Studies have also found that both human being adolescents as well as laboratory rat adolescents become addicted to nicotine faster and at lower doses [1]. It’s true that adolescent brains and adult brains react to drugs completely differently and when there is so much readily available to adolescents these days from alcohol to marijuana to prescription pain killers, it is no wonder that in 2009, 23% of youth met diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder (alcohol or drug abuse dependence) by age 20 [2].

While results will vary on a person-to-person basis and is heavily dependent upon an individual’s unique drug usage, the bottom line is that if an adolescent chooses to engage in drug or alcohol use, the possibility for addiction is far more likely based on the fact that their brains are not done developing yet. Drug use will only hinder the process of normal emotional and chemical development for a teenager. The earlier usage starts, the higher the risk.

Adult brains and adolescent brains operate very differently and an adolescent’s brain has enough on its plate already with stress hormones, growth hormones and sex hormones. Engaging in drugs or alcohol would only contribute to further emotional distress and deregulation—a great disservice to his or her future potential self as an adult and something a teenager doesn’t need in a time that’s already hard on its own.

If your child or someone you know needs help with addiction, please visit our directory of adolescent treatment centers or call 866-606-0182 to start the path to recovery today.


[1] "New Releases." The Adolescent Brain: Beyond Raging Hormones. Harvard Mental Health Letter, 1 July 2005. Web. 8 Jan. 2015.

[2] Squeglia, L. M., J. Jacobus, and S. F. Tapert. “The Influence of Substance Use on Adolescent Brain Development.” Clinical EEG and Neuroscience: Official Journal of the EEG and Clinical Neuroscience Society (ENCS) 40.1 (2009): 31–38. Print.

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