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Substance Abuse & its Irreversible Imprint on the Teenage Brain

When we think of addiction and its aftermath, we are often quick to judge: how could someone do this? Why would a person do this? Why would they continue to drink or abuse drugs, even when their use continues to hurt others? Heartbroken, confused, and angry, we often ask: why would this person be doing this to me? We see how addiction affects our families, reputations, our society, and ourselves. We see how it inhibits a person’s education, relationships, and hope for the future. Yet in the midst of all this outer concern, we often forget how much addiction literally impacts a person’s brain function, and how that physical impairment alone can weigh down their future. This is especially true for teens.

We also often forget that addiction is not a choice. While the initial use of drugs is voluntary, the progression of addiction is one that subtly takes over a person’s self control. It is a chronic disease of the brain that, over time, physically impacts the way the mind thinks, instructs, and develops. In this sense, drug addiction is a “learned” disease. Repeated drug use increasingly teaches the brain to feel and act a certain way. As addiction sets in, our brains understand compulsive drug taking as an ordinary activity—so much, in fact, that we may feel the need to continue it normally during our day-to-day lives.

addiction and the brain

You see, the human brain is wired in a way to ensure that we repeat activities associated with pleasure or reward, activities that we feel are life sustaining. The brain can recognize which activities are important, which ones need to be remembered, and which ones need to be repeated. If our brain tells us it needs something, we seek that very thing out, often without even thinking twice about it. This is partly due to the way our brains react when we consume drugs. Drugs are chemicals. They tap into the brain’s communication system and interfere with our ability to send, receive, and process important information. Certain drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, mimic the neurons in this communication system, activating nerve cells, damaging connections, and creating abnormal messages throughout our brain circuits, insisting that needs be fulfilled.

Addiction largely stems from a drug’s substantial ability to target the brain’s rewards system. Upon being taken, drugs of abuse flood the brain’s reward circuit with dopamine, a chemical that produces euphoric effects in an individual, or gives a user his “high.” Dopamine also aids in regulating a person’s emotions, cognition, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. Normal, natural activities that produce dopamine include eating or sex. When drugs of abuse are taken, however, they overstimulate the brain, releasing anywhere from 2 to 10 times more the amount of dopamine in the brain that natural rewards do. The effects from drugs or alcohol also last much longer, leading a person to repeat use again and again to try to obtain the same pleasure.

Now picture this: A teenage boy at a party may have been pressured by friends to drink a beer, smoke a cigarette, or hit a bowl of marijuana. He may do it to look cool at the time, to fit in. It does not seem like a big deal, at the time. He does not fully evaluate the situation—he does not see his brain years down the road. He is unaware of the damage it can cause, or the dark places it can lead to. He is unaware that substance abuse can affect his body long after use has subsided.

During our teenage years, the brain is still very much developing. It is absorbing, learning, and understanding all that comes our way. These teenage years, therefore, are most vital for healthy cognitive function in later adulthood. So when we hear that the average age of first drug experimentation today is only a mere 13 years old, it’s no wonder why we are confused or hurt. It is a shocking reality—and many teens today still do not recognize the reality of these risks.

In our pre-teen years, the area of our brains responsible for reasoning grows immensely. That growth, however, is pruned back as we reach adolescence, making the prefrontal cortex (the part that controls our ability to make rational decisions) less active as we approach young adulthood. This means that (despite the quick desire to blame teens for being irresponsible), risky and impulsive behaviors are truly normal aspects of teen development. Unfortunately, their compulsivity can lead to experimentation with drugs. Combine this with their inability to fully make rational decisions, and there poses great risk for future substance addiction.

Drug abuse impacts the brain’s ability to function both in the short and long term. Overtime, prolonged drug use will prevent the brain from producing dopamine, thus building a tolerance to the preferred substance. This lends a person the inability to ever experience pleasure the same way again—driving him or her to continue drug use to maintain a sense of happiness. Without drugs, a user may feel depressed, lifeless, and unable to socialize with others.

Drug and alcohol abuse disrupts brain function in the areas most critical to memory, learning, motivation, judgment, and behavior control. Teens who abuse drugs or alcohol, therefore, are more likely to experience poor academic performance, to be arrested, and to have health-related, family, and/or school issues. Not only does early initiation of drug use ingrain unhealthy habits into youth and their developing minds, it also poses an array of missed opportunities during one’s peak learning period. While their brains could be absorbing facts, and taking advantage of school, they are too consumed with certain “highs,” that, at the time, seem much more advantageous than a history class. This is where we need to come in. We need to open the eyes of our youth, and show them how detrimental substance abuse can be to their mind, body, and hope for the future. If they want to travel the road free of addiction, they must first recognize the physical impact and long lasting consequences that substance abuse can bear.

For more information on teen addiction, or the detrimental effects of drug addiction in young men, call Turnbridge today at 1-877-581-1793. There is no true light behind drugs and alcohol, and once we recognize this, we can step out from their shadow. This is a life worth living.