NCFY Reports

Substance Abuse and the Teen Brain: Where the Research Leads Us

Anyone who’s ever bumped into something (or someone) knows that the faster you’re moving, the more likely you are to be knocked off-course. The same rationale can be applied to the rapidly developing teen brain and the potential effects of drugs and alcohol, says Ruben Baler, Ph.D., health scientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

 “The adolescent brain is moving very fast and any influence that comes in is like a nudge,” Baler says. “It will have a long-term impact.”

The adolescent brain, Baler says, constantly prunes itself to get rid of the information-transmitting cells—known as neurons—it doesn’t use. As a result, drug use in the teen years has much more ability to negatively impact the brain’s final shape and functioning than it does in adulthood. Compounding the problem, teens are also more likely to try substances than adults, since the portion of their brain responsible for pleasure-seeking is much more developed than the part that controls higher-level reasoning. As it’s commonly described, the adolescent brain has a fully functioning gas pedal and very little in the way of brakes.

In order to better understand substance abuse in teens, researchers are exploring a number of avenues that could ultimately improve the set of tools family and youth workers have to help. One set of research, Baler says, is aimed at preventing young people from trying drugs in the first place.

“Why do they make that initial decision?” Baler says. “Is it lack of awareness? Is it a brain that is not thinking? Is it peer pressure? Is it an underlying mental illness that is trying to self-medicate?”

Ultimately, Baler says that every young person makes the decision on their own, so it is important for them to have a full set of information about what substances can do to them and their future. Campaigns like NIDA’s Shatter the Myths have been designed to provide teens with research they can use to make informed choices.

Finding Connections

Other researchers are looking into the impact of trauma, extreme stress or other adverse circumstances, to explore which factors most contribute to addiction.

“There’s a problem that some of these kids, and we don’t quite know who yet, are going to then go on and develop pretty significant impairments related to their substance use and they’re going to become dependent,” says Melissa Lopez-Larson, M.D., an investigator at The Brain Institute at the University of Utah. “Those are the kids that we’re trying to understand better.”

Lopez-Larson is currently researching similarities in the brain between young people diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and those who use marijuana. Because ADHD has been studied extensively, finding a connection, she says, may help substance abuse researchers see how changes to the brain’s circuits can trigger impulsiveness and reward-seeking behaviors.

Balancing Nature and Nurture

Such research may seem discouraging for family and youth workers, who can’t change a young person’s past experiences or change their genetic makeup. But environment, Baler says, plays just as big of a role as genetics in shaping the lives and outcomes of young people. He says there is a new field called epigenetics that studies how changes to a person’s environment can impact high-risk genes affecting the brain and body. A recent study in Illinois, for example, showed that baby rats ignored by their mothers showed an almost immediate increase in their brain’s stress levels.

Understanding the role of a young person’s environment can also help youth-serving organizations develop more effective interventions to prevent and curb teen substance use. Fortunately, the same plasticity that makes the teen brain so susceptible to drug use and addiction, Baler says, can also help it change for the better.

 “The brain can adapt,” he says. “It’s malleable in response to experience, in response to drugs, in response to medications, in response to social support, in response to behavior therapy, in response to trauma. In response to both good things and bad things, the brain is always changing itself.”

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