The Teenage Brain and the Effects of Drugs & Alcohol


The Teenage Brain and the Effects of Drugs & Alcohol

"I am addicted to Meth right now. I am a high school senior. I cant really seek help because of what will happen to me if my parents were to find out. Started off snorting only, then it grew into smoking, to smoking & snorting every other day. To the people who say it is just stupid, and "just quit", it isn't that easy, Meth makes you feel better then anything, and you will never understand until it happens to you." This is a true story about a boy in high school who posted this comment on How would you feel if you knew that this boy was someone you knew personally?

Theoretical Proposition

What exactly are we discussing in our research?

The purpose of this essay is to provide an accurate and helpful explanation of the major differences between the adolescent and adult brain, and prove that the brain is more vulnerable to dependency and addiction during the years of adolescence. The expected effect of this article is a greater nationwide knowledge of the gradual changes of the brain, and ultimately to spread awareness to high school students of the dangers of substance abuse including alcohol.

While focusing primarily on the adolescent brain, the lifetime of the brain and its changes will be explained completely. We also intend to compare the teenage brain and its emotions to the teenage brain under the influence of drugs and alcohol. In order for this paper to be a success it must contain adequate material that is accurate and powerful and can be used to educate students across the country about the possible dangers and inform them of ways to avoid these dangerous situations.

Early History

When a baby is only four weeks old inside of the mother, it is already forming brain cells. Trillions of brain cells link with other neurons and eventually there forms connections between the cells. Every cell has its place and all the connections between the neurons are carefully organized. When the baby is born the first thing that happens is the baby's eyes open. The eyes of the baby and the visual cortex of the baby continue to develop even after birth. Neurologist Carla Shatz says, "There's a great mystery left. Our memories and our hopes and our aspirations and who we love all of that is in there encoded in the circuits. But we only have the barest beginnings of an understanding about how the brain really works.”

A child's brain is primarily for learning things like walking, crawling, running, and exploring. They learn to pay attention, learn to reason, and to remember. Until a baby becomes 1 year old, they respond to language with their whole brain. Then eventually the language shifts to the left hemisphere.

The adolescent brain is very complex, mysterious, inspiring, and frustrating. The prefrontal cortex, which is the center of reasoning and impulse control, is still developing during this time. Adolescence is a time of poor judgement and bad behaviors. Teenagers have need and behaviors that are important with development of the brain.

Studies have been done on the adult brain concerning emotion. The study of emotion was once done concerning that what we feel exists outside of our brains. Only acting to intrude on normal thought. After some studies, emotion is found to be integral to our over-all mental health. Our emotional brain takes over our thinking brain; the two parts are intertwined forever. If the brain malfunctions, it can cause pain, depression, and emotional paralysis. The brain also affects positive emotional responses, as laughter, excitement, happiness, and most importantly, love. "Emotions are not the intangible and vaporous qualities that many presume them to be. Brain systems work together to give us emotions just as they do with sight and smell. If you lose the ability to feel, your life, and the lives of people around you, can be devastated." -- Antonio R. Damasio

The aging brain in neuroscience present view on how the brain ages. Even into your 70's and 80's our brains continue producing new neurons. The normal aging process leaves most mental functions perfect, and may provide the brain with advantages that form wisdom. The brain is also more resilient than in previous years.

Recent Findings

The brain grows rapidly during the adolescence years of life. When the neurons mature inside of the brain, it sends out axons (send information), and dendrites (receive information). When you're born each neuron in the cerebral cortex has thousands of synapses. As you grow older, that number grows and grows. As we grow old, the number of old synapses get erased from the brain resulting in synaptic pruning.

Experience decides which connections will be pruned and what connections will be stronger. The connections in the brain that are kept are the ones that are most recently activated. The neurons inside of your brain actually have a purpose. The neurons die inside of the brain without purpose, this will happen if it doesn't send or receive information properly. The weak connections are pruned which then allow for other connections to take shape. Plasticity allows the brain to prune connections, which allows for adaption for its environment.

The brain is very vulnerable to many things. Brain injuries occur more often than beast cancer and AIDS. Mild Dramatic Brain Injury can occur without being unconscious and there can be damage at a cellular level. Their mild injuries can lead to prolonged impairments to the brain permanently. Injury causes lesions that change over a period of time in the prefrontal cortex and its pathways to the old regions of the brain.

Growth in the brain's frontal regions goes throughout young adulthood; injury during childhood can damage the formation of protective myelin insulation surrounding neurons. This can impair the ability to control emotions and acquire bad behavior. These adolescence have trouble responding to social cues and planning hard tasks. A Texas neurologist noted 70% of kid's brain injuries affect the frontal cortex.

Kids who go through early damage in the prefrontal cortex never completely develop social or moral reasoning. Adults cannot refer to this behavior because they have very little concept of it. In contrast, individuals with adult-acquired damage typically are aware of proper social and moral conduct, but cannot apply these behaviors. Since the early 1980s, scientists correlated damage to the prefrontal cortex with psychopathic behavior including the inability to make socially acceptable decisions. This forehead region of the adolescent brain is almost always the site of injury.

Recent findings clearly show dynamic changes in the brain take place during the time of puberty. All drugs including alcohol play a negative effect on the mind and body. Dramatic changes in personalities of drug abusers and users show abnormal behavior, sometimes leading to unpleasant consequences. Although new studies are not 100 percent accurate, there are many factors that can be proven to show that drugs and alcohol are damaging to adolescents.

Drugs- Adolescent vs. Adult

Teens are known to receive less pleasure from daily activities and also to have a lower sensitivity to reward than adults. For this reason, most adolescents seek higher levels of stimulation to achieve the same pleasure. On top of this, Alcohol has been proven to cause a more dramatic amount of brain damage in adolescents than adults. A problem that is likely a reason for nationwide drop in test scores. A teenager's brain is still growing and developing during these years. A dependence on substances will undoubtedly alter the brain negatively and reduce the amount of natural maturation the brain goes through over time.

Adolescents are very vulnerable to dependence and addiction. Substance abuse during the period of life in which the brain completes its maturation is not a good decision. Adolescents are far more at risk than adults who use substances. The level of brain damage inflicted upon high school students due to drugs and alcohol is far past significant. There has been a slight decrease in drug use over the years; however over the counter drugs use has remained uncontrollably high and alcohol use has increased.

Most young drinkers do not fully understand the dangers of substance abuse including alcohol. These kids might see their parents using a substance heavily without developing dependence to the substance. Adolescents are not informed well enough about information like this. They do not realize how much more vulnerable they are to symptoms such as addiction or how dramatic the effect of their substance use is on their maturing brain. Something needs to be done to correct these problems before they become more serious.


The reason it is so urgent that we strive to solve these problems is because if these teenagers are exposed to the vast amount of information regarding the dangers of substance abuse. The information and technology are much more available than the numbers suggest. Surely with a little bit of effort, those numbers can be drastically reduced.

One common problem for frequent drinkers is Alcohol Tolerance. At the beginning, the first drink has a relaxing effect, but as drinking continues, it takes continuously more alcohol to produce the same "buzz" effect. Some people have a higher level of tolerance than others, probably due to genetics. These people tend to be at a higher risk of developing dependence to alcohol because of their increase in tolerance.

The effects of Alcohol include a mild buzz and slow reaction times. While on a short term level these effects may only succeed in making driving a vehicle exceptionally dangerous, in the long term, these effects are also the structure for two of the major characteristics of addiction: tolerance and dependence. This means consequently that a developed tolerance to alcohol over time has a direct influence on the long-term effect of alcoholism.

Substance abuse undoubtedly begins at an early age. The average age of first drug use is thirteen. The average age of first alcohol use is twelve. Over 50 percent of high school seniors have experimented with drugs. A survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found the highest proportion of drinking problems among the younger participants. These studies argued that alcohol problems usually begin early among the youth in the United States, increase continuously in each school year, and peak late in the high school years or early college years. An estimated 20 million adults in the United States abuse alcohol. More than half of these alcoholics started drinking heavily when they were teenagers.

48 percent of adolescents who admit to smoking cigarettes also admit to using other drugs, while only 5.3 percent of non-smokers report involvement with drugs. This statistic clearly illustrates a direct relationship between cigarette use and other drug use, while at the same time suggesting a relationship between alcohol and other drugs. In a very similar comparison, level of alcohol use was compared to the use of other drugs. 65 percent of heavy drinkers, 44 percent of binge drinkers, and 20 percent of light drinkers between the ages of 12 and 17 admitted to using other drugs, compared to only 5 percent of non-drinkers.

Adolescents choose to live under the influence of drugs and alcohol for many different reasons. Many kids are influenced by peer pressure, others by their parents; some are attracted to the idea by movies or advertisement. Substances can be used in an effort to reduce stress, or as a way of improving social life. They can also be used to treat depression or to build confidence. The amount of drug and alcohol use among adolescents has nearly tripled over the last decade. Alcohol abuse is now the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

A recent study by NHYRBS determined that 47.1% of high school students admitted to using alcohol, and 30% reported binge drinking. According to the 32nd annual Monitoring the Future survey of fifty thousand 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in more than 400 schools nationwide, 21 percent of today's 8th graders, over 36 percent of 10th graders, and about 48 percent of all 12th graders have taken any illicit drug during their lifetime. All the evidence suggests that substance abuse is a critical issue that should be openly discussed throughout grades K through 12 in schools across the nation.

The most reasonable ways to treat this problem is through treatment programs or by simply spreading the knowledge of dangers. This can be done more easily than it may seem. By simply spreading the knowledge of danger, and controlling the drug and alcohol content which is advertised to an adolescent audience, there can be a significant drop in numbers. With an intention to stop the problem at the source, a much better chance of success is brought upon us.

Further Studies

It is unfortunate that the information provided is not as reliable as it should be. Although some of the statistics are powerful and some of the research has given us a good idea of the risk involved in substance use, further studies need to be done. If these studies could reveal even more facts about substance abuse and addiction, discover more ways to cure these symptoms more quickly and efficiently, and explain why some users become addicted and some don't, there will be a much more serious impact on adolescent readers. Alcohol abuse should be looked into just as vividly as any other type of disease. The amount of teenage deaths that could be prevented by finding a more effective way of treatment is necessary at any expense. This is much more than an issue of politics, this is about taking the generations of adolescents to come, and giving them a fair chance at a bright and problem free future.


Those who do not support the intention of this document have somewhat understandable reasons for these views. Some critics feel as if the data and statistics provided are not accurate, because the results do not represent the entire population. Some do not feel the statistics represent a legitimate relationship between subjects; such as the one between heavy alcohol use, and addiction. Others simply prefer to look on the smaller side of the scale, and argue that not all adolescents who use drugs and alcohol regularly become addicted.

There is no such thing as a perfect theory, hence the need for the word theory itself. The message being pushed in this paper is a statistically based argument of opinion, and is not necessarily correct. However before choosing a reaction to the topic, consider the idea from a wider perspective. Even if by some chance the seemingly consistent numbers prove to be incorrect, all that is wasted is merely the cost of paper. And on the other side, if our intentions succeed there will be a great deal of problems solved, and just as many accidents prevented.

Studies/Experiment Findings

Recently, researchers at the Brookhaven National Laboratory have found that using the same medical imaging techniques that doctors use to diagnose cancer and heart disease can help find out what drugs and alcohol do to the brain. We have known for a while that using drugs and alcohol affect the chemistry of the brain, but until now we have not been able to see exactly what affects the different types of drugs have on the brain. They use two techniques; positron emission tomography (PET), and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). Among the studies conducted were cocaine, alcohol, marijuana, and cigarette smoke. In each study, the positron emission tomography showed that the drugs all cause alterations in brain chemistry and in some cases, like that of cocaine, can be irreversible.

In the past, there has been “Generation X,” “Generation Y,” and even “The Baby Boomers.” But the most recent generation in which our current teenagers are apart of has been known as “Generation Rx.” They received this name because of their tendency to use prescription drugs to receive a high. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America's ® annual study of teen drug use and attitudes that established an alarming number of today's teenagers are more likely to have abused prescription drugs and over the counter drugs than a variety of illegal drugs like Ecstasy, cocaine, crack, and meth. The study showed that nearly one out of 5 teens reported abusing prescription medications to get high; and one in 10 reported abusing cough medicine to get high. Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of the Partnership, agreed that the problem has become normalized in teen culture, which gives them the idea it is okay. The use of prescription drugs to get high has given teenagers a new scene with more options than what was available years ago. This new alternative and option widens the user base so that there are more teens abusing and getting addicted to drugs.

Along with the problem of using these Rx and over the counter drugs, is the problem of naive children. In this study, two in five teens agreed that Rx medicines, even if they are not prescribed by a doctor, are “much safer” to use than illegal drugs, which is certainly not the case. In addition, fifty five percent of the teens surveyed agreed that using cough medicine to get high is not risky at all. Pain relievers, such as Vicodin, used as a muscle relaxant when not needed or prescribed, are very dangerous as well, with most Rx medicine, teens don't understand the consequences and are very arrogant about using them. More than three out of five teens say that prescription pain relievers are easy to obtain from parents' medicine cabinets, and over thirty five percent believe they are safer to use than illegal drugs.

In 2001 there was a study conducted by the World Health Organization to compare drug use for teenagers from America and Europe. The study showed that more Americans, at 41 percent, had used marijuana than European teenagers, which had about a 16 percent usage. In addition, American teenagers used more illicit drugs, 16 percent used amphetamines and 10 percent used LSD, compared to only 6 percent of European teens saying they have ever tried an illicit drug.

The risk of teens becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs is a serious and legitimate concern. Addiction can and will last your whole lifetime, so the question is, what happens to the children of parents who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. A study conducted by the national association for children of alcoholics will answer this question. First of all, addiction tends to run in families, children of addicted parents are more at risk for becoming alcoholics or abusing other drugs than children of non-addicted parents. Secondly, alcohol and other drugs have been shown to cause fighting and aggression, so children that grow up in an environment like that are more apt to have aggression towards others, get in fights, and have social behavior problems. Also, there is a certain relationship between alcohol addiction and child abuse, a study by Reid, J., Macchetto, P., and & Foster, S. in 1999 showed that three out of four child maltreatment cases have to do with alcohol addition. So as we can see, alcohol and drug addiction will not only affect the teenagers, but their children.

Psychological/Biological/Social/Cultural Aspects

There are many different aspects of social drinking and drug usage in adolescents. Where no one main socioeconomic group has been proven to have a larger addiction problem than another, some groups have been shown to be more vulnerable to addiction than others. In certain impoverished communities, drug dealing, and alcohol bootlegging, such as the sale of alcohol to minors, is just looked at as another way of making money. With problems like this in a community it gives teenagers the impression that these acts are acceptable, which leads to major drug and alcohol abuse and addiction for teenagers and young adults. Also, with the greater socioeconomic status comes larger alcohol consumption. The larger “disposable income” gives teens the ability to spend more money on alcohol.

Culture certainly plays a roll in addiction and adolescent drug and alcohol abuse. Cultural groups that value abstinence and integrate it into their communities seem to have extremely low rates of substance abuse. Children that don't grow up around alcohol or have the influence of alcohol around them while growing up are much less likely to use alcohol during their adolescence.

In communities where alcohol use is low and adolescent substance abuse is low, all is well. But studies have shown that if an adolescent moves from an environment similar to that, to one where substance abuse is high the chances of that adolescent using alcohol and/or drugs is very high. This concept works the other way also. If an adolescent has an alcohol or drug problem and comes from a community with a high substance abuse problem and moves into a community with a low substance abuse problem then that adolescent has a good chance of turning around and recovering from their problems.

These days drug and alcohol use in children and young teens is not rare, in fact, it has become somewhat “normal.” Over the past few decades' drug and alcohol use has become more common in increasingly lower age groups. Today, many young people have their first experiences with heavy drinking in there early or mid-teens. Often, the first experience is in a social context with peers, where alcohol and drugs can temporarily lessen social anxiety and personal insecurity. Studies have found that no matter the individual, genetic, or family factors involved, a young person that is exposed to a heavy drinking situation is apt to drink heavily.

Drug abuse has certainly risen in recent years, not just for teens, but also for adults, from 1998 to 2001 the deaths caused from methamphetamine (meth) have increased 125 percent. From 1998 to 2000 meth induced emergency room visits have doubled, and the use in children from age 12-17 have increased dramatically. We can see that there is a definite drug problem in America, but not all of it can be blamed on lower socioeconomic groups, or bad parenting. The Internet has caused a large increase in drug use and manufacturing in America. Currently, there are hundreds of websites giving recipes on how to produce methamphetamine, also, where to buy the ingredients to produce it. There are also over a thousand websites showing people how to grow marijuana and giving them tips for “good results.”

As we know, adolescents are very social and depend a lot on their peers. Unfortunately, this puts them in a state to be very vulnerable to drug abuse. At parties and other group gatherings teens have a tendency to do what ever they need to feel they fit in. This could be a positive thing, except when alcohol or drugs are present. Teens feel pressured to use drugs as a way to get along with everyone else, this can later turn into drug addiction and evolve into using more harmful drugs.

Biological reasons play a large role in addiction. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter within the central nervous system, is has an apparent role in the regulation of mood and in the motivation and reward process. In the case of heroin, the neuronal firing rate of the dopamine cells increases. This increase produces dopamine, which gives the user a mood elevation and euphoria. When the action is ended (the drug is removed from the brain) the user is highly motivated to repeat the experience. With most drugs, this is where addiction occurs, the motivation caused by the increase of dopamine is strong enough for the brain to want to use again.