Addiction and the Teenage Brain

Four teens smiling

Teens have always been impulsive risk-takers, but modern research helps explain why they are and how this puts them at a greater risk for addiction than adults. It all comes down to the development of the frontal lobe of the human brain. It is the last part of the brain to mature and the region that is responsible for making decisions, for controlling impulses and for risk-taking. With this area still in development, teens are at highly susceptible to making bad choices when it comes to substance abuse and for becoming addicted.

Development of the Brain and Impulse Control

Researchers in neuroscience have pinpointed how and when the human brain finishes developing, and while everyone is an individual, most of us are works in progress until our early or mid-20s. One aspect of brain-building that is still in development in the teenage years is the creation of myelin, the insulating fat that surrounds brain cells. Without the insulation, certain areas of the brain don’t function as well. For teens, the last part of the brain to get that insulation is the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for key executive functions. We use it to make insights, to have empathy for others, to control our impulses and to make choices about behaviors that may be risky. Without complete connections here, teenagers are less able than adults to make quick, important decisions and to control impulses. Earlier research already found that impulse control is a big factor in substance abuse and addiction. People who are more impulsive are more likely to abuse substances.

From Impulsivity to Addiction

The impulsive nature of the teenager, along with a decreased ability to see the harm in risky behaviors, often leads to substance abuse. To compound the problem, teenagers are also more likely than adults to become addicted when they abuse substances. To understand why, we can consider learning. The incomplete development of the teenage brain allows teens to learn more easily than adults. Learning something new stimulates connections in the brain that become a more entrenched circuit. This is easier to do when the connections are still incomplete, as in teenagers.

Addiction, sadly, is similar to learning in the brain. When a teen abuses a drug, he or she builds a new circuit based on reward. As with learning something new, this circuit is easier to build and strengthen in a teenage brain. The result is that teens abusing substances become addicted more quickly and more heavily than adults do. It is a myth that young people are more resilient when it comes to substance abuse. The reality is that drugs and alcohol have more permanent and lasting effects on the teenage brain.

Understanding the teenage brain is important when it comes to learning about the risks of substance abuse. We know that teens are more likely to abuse substances and that they suffer greater damages when making that choice. Teens need to be educated, as do their parents, as to these realities of drug and alcohol use. With knowledge comes power. Teens are not slaves to their brains. They are capable of making better choices, and with the right information they are more likely to make the right decisions about substance abuse.

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