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06-01 Drug abuse and the teen brain

Drug abuse and the teen brain

One area of scientific study that continues to be researched today is how drug abuse affects the teenage brain. Studies have shown that this age group is especially susceptible to impulsive behavior. Teens sometimes cannot comprehend the consequences of their actions. They are also more likely to risk long-lasting cognitive and emotional damage as a result of their substance abuse. This is now better understood as research has shown that the teenage brain is still developing. As a matter of fact, the brain continues to develop into young adulthood, as far as into a person’s mid-20s.

Facts on adolescent brain development

In adolescence, certain areas of the brain develop more rapidly than others. This includes regions that control abilities such as developing strategies, determining priorities, coping with impulses and paying attention. Other skills that are developed at this time are comprehension of rules and understanding abstract information. At this point in the cognitive development process, teens will also learn about social expectations and customs.

How drugs and alcohol affect development

Controlled substances may affect development in a number of different ways. For instance, drugs may bring about different activity in neurotransmitters. These are the chemical messengers in the brain that allow nerves to communicate. Such connections may be damaged in the process. In addition, because drugs alter perception, certain perceptual abilities can be affected. The choices that are involved in drug abuse may become habitual as well. Actions based on reasoning that develop in childhood and adolescence can remain present for a lifetime.

Alcohol consumption during adolescent development presents a deteriorating effect on overall neurocognitive functioning. Those who drink heavily in adolescence may exhibit decreased attention and weakened memory. An individual’s ability to plan for the future may be compromised, along with his or her performance in school. Troubles with language, as well as finding different solutions to problems, may also be likely.

Marijuana has been shown to have its own effects on adolescent cognitive functioning. Those who use marijuana regularly, followed by a significant period of abstinence, have undergone cognitive testing in studies. Decreased performance in memory, learning and other cognitive areas was noted. The ability to concentrate can also be significantly compromised. It has been shown that marijuana affects the teen brain for a greater length of time than adults. Behaviors are still being learned at this age, causing a greater potential for addiction.

Long-term disadvantages

Naturally, the cognitive damage that occurs at this developmental stage may continue into adulthood. Especially in cases in which drugs or alcohol were used before the mid-teens, harm to the flexibility of the brain may be especially great. A lack of stress hormones and experience coping with stress head-on could lead to a decreased ability to deal with stress as an adult. Heavy alcohol use affects teens cognitively by harming their frontal lobe. This is the area of the brain responsible for reasoning, disrupting a teen’s ability to make decisions, perform social functions and pay attention.

Signs to watch for

There are a number of signs that adults should watch for if they are concerned their teen may be using alcohol or drugs. For example, sudden changes in a teen’s social circle could indicate they are using drugs or alcohol. Also any serious decline in his or her academic performance, changes in the adolescent’s physical appearance, such as in weight or personal hygiene and changes in mood and personality are also strong indicators of substance abuse. Perhaps the teen is suddenly having money problems or has been caught stealing. Taking money without asking may be an attempt to procure money to support a drug or alcohol habit.

Prevention and treatment

Adults can set a powerful example for children regarding substance abuse or alcohol. If teens see parental figures abusing substances, then they may assume this behavior is permissible. Teens will inevitably be subjected to instances of substance abuse, whether in person or through different media outlets like film and television. Use this opportunity to speak with the teen clearly and honestly about the consequences of substance abuse.

If parents believe that your adolescent already has complications from substance abuse, they can take advantage of community resources that can help. There are medical professionals parents can consult as well as substance abuse hotlines that will offer assistance.

At Sovereign Health of Rancho San Diego, we offer the highest standard of care to assist your teen in overcoming substance abuse, mental health disorders or co-occurring conditions. To speak to a member of our team and about our treatment programs, please contact us at 866-615-7266.

Written by Sovereign Health Group writer, Ryan McMaster

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