The Teen Brain: Primed for Addiction

Research has shown: the earlier a teen uses any substance, the greater the risk.

One of the biggest risk factors to addiction is early exposure to drugs, when the unique development of the teen brain makes it more prone to addiction. And research has shown, the earlier a teen uses any substance, the greater the risk.

Why is the Brain Wired for Teen Addiction?

The teen brain is still “under construction.” The brain’s front end, the prefrontal cortex, controls executive functions such as reason, decision making, insight, and impulse control. In the teen brain, this area is built but not fully insulated; signals move through slowly. The brain “matures” and insulates itself from back to front. The primitive areas of the brain, which process emotions and the rewards system, matures before the region associated with logical reasoning and decision making.

When a teenager uses drugs at this particular developmental time, when the reward system and emotional region of the brain is fully functioning, but decision making and impulses control is still a work-in-progress, you get a brain that is primed for addiction.

The teen brain, as described by psychologist David Walsh, is like a car with a fully functional accelerator… but no brakes.

The Teen Brain takes more Risks

A result of the brain maturing and developing from back to front is a significant increase in risk taking or novel behaviors in teens and young adolescents.

With a developed rewards-system, the teen brain is very sensitive to new sensations, novel situations, and new experiences. This sensitivity to rewards and novelty leads to reward-seeking behavior, such as trying drugs or even pleasing their peers.

Drugs stimulate the rewards system of the brain by disrupting the neurotransmitters, like dopamine, that regulate pleasure. The brain remembers that experience, and associates the action (drug use) with the reward. So at the same time that a teenager is experimenting with drugs, their brain is “learning” that drugs equal pleasure.

The brain is developing in a way that encourages a teen to seek out rewards like new experiences, but without the ability to put on the brakes or differentiate between safe or dangerous situations.

Teen Drug use increases the risk of Teen Addiction

The research is clear: early exposure to drugs increases the chances of addiction. The earlier in adolescence drug experimentation or substance use, the greater the risk.

  • 7.2% of youths who begin drinking at 11-12 years of age developed an alcohol use disorder within two years.
  • 3.7% of youths who begin drinking at age 21 developed an alcohol use disorder within two years.

Early drug use is a risk factor for addiction that can’t be ignored.

Drug use changes the brain. Drug use during teen years changes a brain that is still being developed. Full brain maturity, and the insulation of the frontal cortex that regulates impulse control, decision making, and reason, won’t occur in most people until their mid-to-late twenties. Since your teen can’t always control their impulses, or exercise good decision making, it is crucial that you take every step you can to help protect them from drug use that can become addiction.

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