According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the impact of prescription drugs can be particularly harmful to a developing adolescent brain and body. Our brains continue to a develop until we reach our early- to mid-twenties.
Drug use at an early age is an important predictor of substance use disorder later in life and has a significant impact on both physical and mental functioning of adolescents into adulthood. According to the 2015 Monitoring the Future Survey, 23.6 percent of high school seniors reported using an illicit drug with 7.6 percent reporting using a drug other than marijuana during the past month.
Drug use can affect the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This part of your brain gives you the power to think, plan, solve problems, make decisions, and utilize self-control over impulses. This part of your brain is the last part of the brain to mature, making teens most vulnerable.
Drug Effects on the Brain
Drugs can impact 3 main areas of the brain:
- The basal ganglia, which plays an important role in positive forms of motivation
- The extended amygdala, which plays a role in stressful feelings like anxiety, irritability, and unease
- The prefrontal cortex, which gives the ability to think, plan, solve problems, make decisions, and exert self-control over impulses
Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter that the body produces to allow the body to feel pleasure. When taking drugs, it overloads the body with dopamine. In response, the body’s brain reduces the amount of pleasure signals to find the right balance. Eventually, the body needs more of the drug to feel the same high as before. This effect is known as tolerance, and it can be especially dangerous in the cases of drugs like heroin and cocaine.
To learn more about the brain, drug use, and reward pathways, read more here: Teaching the Science of Addiction.
Risk and Protective Factors
Risk and protective factors can help indicate drug use and addiction. Research shows that the earlier a person begins to use drugs, the more likely he or she is to develop serious problems.
- Risk factors are characteristics at the biological, psychological, family, community, or cultural level that precede and are associated with a higher likelihood of negative outcomes.
- Protective factors are characteristics associated with a lower likelihood of negative outcomes or that reduce a risk factor’s impact. Protective factors may be seen as positive countering events.
Examples of risk and protective factors are depicted in chart. There is no single factor that determines whether a person will become addicted to drugs.
- ABCD Study
- Brain and Addiction
- Drugs and the Brain (NIDA)
- Effects of Drugs on the Teen Brain
- Marijuana May Hurt the Developing Brain (National Public Radio)
- Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders
- Sensitive periods of substance abuse: Early risk for the transition to dependence
- The Influence of Substance Use on Adolescent Brain Development (Article)