Brain Science and Teen Drug Use

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“What were you thinking?!”

This is the quintessential utterance of every parent, to every teenager that has ever lived. It’s behavior that mystifies, that defies all the elements of common sense. What were you thinking when you jumped off the roof into the swimming pool… lit that fire in the driveway… or dumped green paint all over those perfect white locks on your sister’s head?

What were you thinking, indeed. The truth is, very often teenagers aren’t thinking. They sometimes act before fully weighing the consequences of their actions. And there’s very real brain science that helps to explain this phenomenon.

Most people are unaware that in brain science terms, adolescence is defined as ages twelve to twenty-four. That’s a broad span of twelve years, and the differences between a twelve-year old and a twenty-four-year old are significant. One is just entering puberty, and the other is a fully legal adult. Yet their brains do have one thing in common: they’re still developing.

It is the frontal lobe, or prefrontal cortex of the brain that undergoes significant change during the adolescent years. This region of the brain is responsible for regulating decision-making, problem solving, control of purposeful behaviors, consciousness, and emotions. So imagine the upheaval as it undergoes a multi-year process of “pruning.” During this time, like no other in a person’s life, many existing neurons are eliminated, and new myelin sheaths are laid down to connect the remaining linked neurons. It’s a robust process where the knowledge acquired during childhood is whittled down, reshaped, and groomed for adulthood.

It’s known that the brain circuits most actively engaged during these years may resist the pruning process, and those that are underutilized may be the most vulnerable and subject to loss. Accordingly, the teen years are the best for developing proficiency in sports, the arts, or any number of specialized endeavors. Yet if those years are spent consuming alcohol and other drugs, the brain may focus on and attempt to save those capabilities. While some brains are learning to be world-class golfers and musicians, others brains are learning, “I’m really good at getting loaded.” The seeds of addiction are sown.

For these very reasons, it’s important for us to be aware that teenagers, including those in late adolescence/early adulthood, are uniquely susceptible to the effects of alcohol and other drugs. People who begin use before the age of fifteen are actually FIVE times more likely to develop dependence than those who wait until their twenties. So when a parent wrongfully concludes they have dodged the proverbial drug bullet with their teen who “only drinks a little” or “only smokes a little weed,” that confidence may not be well founded.

It’s brain science: The later one initiates use of alcohol and other drugs, the less the chances of developing dependence later in life.

For more information on this fascinating subject, please refer to these sites:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/trouble-in-mind/201112/brilliant-brazen-teenage-brain

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/inspire-rewire/201402/pruning-myelination-and-the-remodeling-adolescent-brain

http://www.drugfree.org/why-do-teens-act-this-way

http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh284/213-221.htm

http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/center-for-adolescent-health/_includes/Effects_of_Drugs_Standalone.pdf

http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/center-for-adolescent-health/_includes/Interactive%20Guide.pdf

Author: Barbara Stoefen

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2 Comments

  1. Pamela, I sometimes physically cringe when I recall certain things from my youth, especially young adulthood. It’s miraculous that most of us survive. Doesn’t seem fair that one careless moment can have such devastating consequences for some. But “fair,” well, that’s another subject all together.

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  2. This IS fascinating. It’s hard to remember that we all went through this phase. I try to remember some of the crazy things I did…I then appreciate I survived through it. It also makes me want to protect those going through these stages!

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