Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

What Substance Abuse Does to the Developing Brain of a Teen

The human brain was once considered a bit of a mystery. It’s trapped beneath the bony surface of the skull, impenetrable to direct examination, and most people aren’t able to articulate how their brain cells feel. When the brain was damaged, it was hard to measure how much the cells may have changed, and it was harder still to develop treatments that could help. Now, sophisticated scanning equipment allows researchers to study the brain in detail, without harming those people studied. As a result, scientists know a great deal about how the adolescent brain develops, and they also know quite a bit about how substance abuse can harm those cells.

Standard Growth

During adolescence, the brain undergoes a remarkable transformation. Portions of the brain that govern impulse control seem to go dark, while segments of the brain dealing with reward and motivation become yet more sensitive and powerful. These changes may explain why adolescents are more vulnerable to exploring drugs and alcohol, according to an article produced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. An adolescent brain is designed to send out deep cravings for action when something desirable is at play, and the portions of the brain that might reign in those impulses aren’t active yet. Similarly, the spike in sex hormones in teens might make teens more impulsive, liable to act on any suggestion that comes along, rather than thinking about the consequences in advance.

Teens like this might take drugs, but they also might:

  • Combine multiple types of drugs
  • Take in large doses of drugs
  • Escalate their use
  • Drive or otherwise engage in risky behavior while under the influence

Since their brains are attenuated to signals of reward, drugs just might be more enjoyable for them, and since the drugs are rewarding and impulse control levels are low, teens might take drugs repeatedly, as they have no way to combat cravings. Escalating from use to abuse is remarkably easy for teens as a result, and those who take in very high doses of drugs may do almost irreparable damage to their very fragile brain cells.

Disrupted Growth

Drugs are chemicals, and they tend to cause spikes or decreases in reciprocal chemicals in the mind of a teen. Teens who tinker with chemistry may face some of the same symptoms seen in adults who use drugs.

Depression, for example, might result from the chronic use of drugs.

These drugs can cause a spike in the release of chemicals the brain releases in response to pleasure. In response, the brain begins to react with decreasing frequency to any source of pleasure, meaning that people with addictions may only feel happy when they’re high. The chemical amendments in the brain are to blame, and they’re common in people who abuse drugs.

Some damage, however, is exclusive to the adolescent brain. In a study of the issue, in the journal Clinical EEG and Neuroscience: Official Journal of the EEG and Clinical Neuroscience Society, researchers outline many consequences of adolescent drug use, including abnormalities in:

  • Brain volume
  • Quality of white matter
  • Cognitive function
  • Brain activation

These changes might seem interesting only to scientists, as parents might not notice that the brains of their teens are smaller or wired differently. But since the brain has a deep impact on the way people think and behave, structural changes could bring about intense symptoms that might be hard to control. Teens like this might not perform well on tests involving memory or recall, and they might struggle to keep their emotions in check. They might find it hard to set aside current pleasure for future gain, and they might not be able to really plan for the future at all. The wiring differences could have a deep impact on the way the teen lives life.

Long-Term Changes

While these structural changes are certainly serious, there are other dangers of drug use in terms of adolescent growth. For example, according to the SAMA Foundation, exposing brain cells to drugs during adolescence can disrupt perception. Healthy adults might use the frontal lobes of the brain to solve a problem and make a decision. Teens, however, might use the more primitive areas of the brain to make the same choices, including those parts of the brain that emphasize emotion and fear. Teens who abuse drugs may freeze their brain cells in this stage of development, and they might grow into adults who are emotionally defensive and irritable, unable to see the logic in a situation and think past the kneejerk demands of their emotions.

Those who abuse drugs in adolescence might also develop habits that are increasingly difficult to break.

The brain remembers things that are rewarding, and those cells call out for familiar solutions in times of pain. It’s a shortcut, and normally, it’s an effective procedure. But those who use drugs and alcohol early in life might train their brain cells to call out for drugs, over and over again. They may not really want them or like them, but the drugs have become a habit for the brain, and it might seem like a habit that’s so old and so entrenched that it’s difficult to break. Since adolescents are much more malleable than adults, those who don’t heal during adolescence may set down hardwiring rules regarding use that are difficult to amend once adulthood sets in.

What to Do

Just because drug use causes persistent changes in the cells of the brain doesn’t mean that addicted teens are doomed to live with their choices forever. The brain is always changing and always growing, and while it might be harder for teens to heal when they have years of abuse behind them, they can gain control and learn how to make better choices in the future. At Muir Wood, we’ve developed programs that can allow adolescent boys to understand the damage their drug use has caused, and we can provide intensive training that allows boys to overcome their deficits and live healthier, more fulfilling lives. Please call us to find out more about our programs for teens. We’d love to help your son.

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