Research Shows Consequences of Drug Abuse on the Teenage Brain

Research Shows Consequences of Drug Abuse on the Teenage Brain

By Don Vereen

Research on drug abuse and addiction tells us that drug abuse is a preventable behavior and drug addiction is a treatable brain disease. This ongoing research provides a clearer picture than ever before of the consequences of drug use. Whether young people use drugs to self medicate such ills as depression or anxiety or they are curious about what a peer says about how a drug makes them feel, repeated drug use actually changes their brains.

The most disturbing thing about these brain changes caused by drug abuse is that they occur in young people at a time when their brains are still developing. The critical areas in the brain used for making judgments and comprehending complex concepts like safety and freedom are not fully developed at age 15. These areas in the brain’s frontal lobes (the area just behind the forehead and above the eyes) do not develop completely until people are in their 20s. These critical areas are also the same areas affected directly by drugs of abuse.

A young person may recover quickly from a single or occasional use of a drug, but repeated
use may result in brain changes that are long lasting. In addition, vulnerability to these brain changes as well as the ability to recover from them appear to have genetic underpinnings
that we are just beginning to understand.

Because of advances in neuroimaging technologies, we can now “see” how the human
brain functions and how this relates to thinking, feeling, and behaving. Chronic exposure to drugs of abuse disrupts the way critical brain structures interact to control behavior—behavior specifi cally related to drug abuse. Drug addiction erodes a person’s
self-control and ability to make sound decisions, while sending intense impulses to take
drugs. This combination drives addiction—with the abuser seeking out and taking drugs
compulsively.

Thanks to the research completed so far, we have a clearer understanding of just what it
is we need to prevent. These brain changes make it clear why we must do our best to prevent drug use among adolescents and apply the research-based principles of prevention.
Restoring the brain and reinstating healthy behaviors, including strong family and peer
relationships, educational achievement, and employment success are the ultimate goals
of drug treatment. Early treatment is optimal. Preventing any drug use is best. 

Don Vereen is special assistant to the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).