Almost everyone would agree that adolescence is synonymous with thrill-seeking, risk-taking, and impulsive behavior. During teenage years, brain circuits within the frontal lobe that are key for executive function (planning, risk assessment and decision making) are still immature, permitting these traits to be exhibited. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense because these traits promote exploration and would have been useful for survival. In the present, however, risk-taking and novelty-seeking may promote personal growth. Unfortunately, for many teens, these traits lead to experimenting with drugs. What’s worse is that the earlier the onset of drug use, the greater is the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder.
The fact that the teenage brain hasn’t completely matured makes it susceptible to taking drugs and more vulnerable to the effects of these substances – a double whammy!
Drugs interfere with brain development during adolescence in multiple ways. They can modify communication between neurons (or brain cells) and impede processes that are important for formation and fine-tuning (or pruning) of brain connections. They can also cause structural changes in various brain areas in a drug-specific way. Even minor changes during this phase can affect cognitive and emotional functioning. They can alter perception, influence formation of new habits, compromise how the brain perceives reward, disrupt learning and memory processes as well as social behavior.
We’ve only been focusing on the brain so far. In case you were wondering, drugs affect the rest of the body as well. Not surprisingly, the pictures aren’t pretty.
Scientists are deeply invested in determining if the effects of drugs persist even after one stops using them. An equally important research question is if these drug-induced effects can be reversed. An additional layer of complexity comes from the fact that different drugs of abuse can interact with each other and with prescription medication. The potentially harmful effects of these interactions are still underexplored in the scientific world. These questions are currently being addressed in long-term studies in humans to eventually improve existing intervention strategies.
We hope that better prevention and treatment approaches will be available in the near future. In the meanwhile, let’s not forget about the power of awareness and self-care!
References and Additional Resources:
1. Jordan CJ, Andersen SL. Sensitive periods of substance abuse: Early risk for the transition to dependence. Dev Cogn Neurosci. 2017;25:29-44. (https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/33490762)
2. Volkow ND, Koob GF, Croyle RT, et al. The conception of the ABCD study: From substance use to a broad NIH collaboration. Dev Cogn Neurosci. 2017;(October):1-4.
3. Volkow ND, Morales M. The Brain on Drugs: From Reward to Addiction. Cell. 2015;162(4):712-725. (http://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(15)00962-9)
4. National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens (https://teens.drugabuse.gov/)
About the Author: Aparna Shah, PhD is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Johns Hopkins University. She is interested in the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders, particularly in mood and substance abuse disorders, and is passionate about science education and outreach.