How Do Drugs Affect the Brain of a Teenager?

Addiction is a messy and complicated disorder, but exactly how do drugs affect the brain of a teenager? When does it turn from experimentation to addiction?

Teenagers are going through so much. As their brain is still developing and they are experiencing increases in their hormone production, their moods can go from happy to angry in a single second.

Plus, it is often hard to maintain a positive, forward motion in the teenage brain because the desire for impulsivity and overflowing emotions are difficult to handle.

So what happens when a teenager decides to use drugs for the first time? And, what happens when he or she becomes addicted to drugs?

Drugs can be harsh on the body – especially the brain. But when the brain is still developing – as it is in a teenager – the entire addiction process can be a bigger struggle.


The Inner Workings of the Brain

The brain and its many nerve cells work to control everything in the body – from telling the heart to beat to what you feel like eating for breakfast.

This all happens through electrical signals that get sent throughout the body by neurotransmitters, from nerve to nerve.

Neurotransmitters love rewards – the love to feel good.

  • For example, when we eat something that tastes good, the neurotransmitters feel as though they have been rewarded.
  • This is all due to the release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter.

Consuming drugs and alcohol releases lots of dopamine within the body.

And, well, the body enjoys it. It feels good. So, it wants more.

And more. And more.

This is how one becomes addicted – all by chasing that feeling of the dopamine.

Sure, the body can release dopamine without the use of drugs or alcohol, but the process is much slower. In the meantime, the sad feelings that come with not having it can lead the individual to ingest more of the addictive substance.


The Developing Brain

A brain is not fully developed until we reach approximately 25 years of age. And, as it is finishing up this development, it does so from the back to the front.

That means that the prefrontal cortex – found in the front of the brain – is the area that is the last to develop.

The brain goes through a type of pruning process in which it sharpens the connections throughout the brain so that, as adults, focus and perception can be much more clear.

The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that is responsible for using good judgment. This is often why teens are often:

  • Find difficulty in controlling or holding back emotions.
  • Engage in risky or impulsive behavior.
  • Poor judgment and planning, resulting in a lack of thought regarding negative consequences.
  • Seek the most excitement for the smallest effort.

This area of the brain is incredibly important in controlling behavior. And, it could very well explain why teens tend to become addicted easier.


An Easy Addict: How Drugs Affect the Brain of a Teenager

Teens want to experience new feelings, sensations, and excitement. They take these risks for various reasons.

Some may be to fit in socially with their peers, others may do it as a means of rebellion towards parents and other authority figures. And, then there are those teens who just engage in risky behavior because, well, they want to. They have no other reason for doing it.

When it comes to using drugs, however, teenagers are very vulnerable – and they are easy addicts. Why?

Because the brain is still developing, and its growth can be inhibited by the use of drugs and alcohol.

Alcohol and drugs affect the brain of a teenager in many ways as they can physically change the way the brain works.

In a brain that is not fully developed, it can cause damage due to the toxins and even cause a shift in development. This disruption can affect a teens brain in the following ways:

  • Impulse control
  • Completing tasks and achieving goals
  • Planning
  • Judgment
  • Ability to learn and retain information
  • Ability to experience reward


Teens and Alcohol

Drinking with friends is a common pastime among many teenagers. The thrill of getting their hands on a bottle of these adult beverages and consuming them satisfies that impulsive and risk-taking urge.

Unlike many adults who can legally drink and therefore tend to do so in moderation, teens are much more likely to binge drink (drinking excessively in a short period of time).

The teen brain, however, responds much differently to alcohol consumption than an adult brain does. And, those who begin drinking early often have a greater chance of developing an addiction to alcohol.

In addition, excessively consuming alcohol can also lead to an increased risk of damage to the physical health and growth of teens. Here are a few reasons how:

  • Reduced overall growth potential
  • Lower bone mineral density
  • Delayed onset of puberty
  • Liver damage or increased enzyme levels in the liver
  • Damage to the reproductive system


The Decrease in Cognitive Abilities

What teens do now can affect them in the future. If the ‘now’ includes drug or alcohol use, they are likely to experience the pains from those activities as they get older.

A decreased cognitive ability is one way.

If you do your research, you will see that many studies show that students who claim to use drugs or alcohol often perform worse academically than their peers.

Alcohol and drugs affect the brain of young adults in terms of memory as well.  They are likely to find themselves dealing with memory recollection as they get older.



Most mental health disorders don’t appear fully until late teens or early adulthood. And, quite often, many of these individuals have – at some point – experimented with drugs or alcohol.

While researchers and professionals believe there is a link between the two, it remains to be undetermined.

Because there is evidence that alcohol and drugs affect the brain of a teenager by reducing development, we cannot rule out the possibility that it may lead to mental health conditions.

In addition, those who have used previously and experience the onset of a mental health disorder are much more likely to try to self-medicate with the use of drugs and/or alcohol.



Teenagers are always going to be risky and experiment with things that they shouldn’t. However, increasing their knowledge and educating them on the damage that can occur within the brain is a great place to start.

By understanding exactly how alcohol and drugs affect the brain of a teenager, they can make more informed decisions and encourage them to find help for their addiction earlier.


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