Adolescents are “biologically wired” to seek new experiences and take risks, as well as to carve out their own identity.
Trying drugs may fulfill all of these normal developmental drives, but in an unhealthy way that can have very serious long-term consequences.
Drugs, unfortunately, are able to hijack this process.
The “high” produced by drugs represents a flooding of the brain’s reward circuits with much more dopamine than natural rewards generate.
Everyday rewards during adolescence—such as hanging out with friends, listening to music, playing sports, and all the other highly motivating experiences for teenagers—cause the release of this chemical in moderate amounts.
This reinforces behaviors that contribute to learning, health, well-being, and the strengthening of social bonds.By the time they are seniors, almost 70 percent of high school students will have tried alcohol, half will have taken an illegal drug, nearly 40 percent will have smoked a cigarette, and more than 20 percent will have used a prescription drug for a nonmedical purpose.There are many reasons adolescents use these substances, including the desire for new experiences, an attempt to deal with problems or perform better in school, and simple peer pressure.The teenage years are a critical window of vulnerability to substance use disorders, because the brain is still developing and malleable (a property known as neuroplasticity), and some brain areas are less mature than others.The parts of the brain that process feelings of reward and pain—crucial drivers of drug use—are the first to mature during childhood.The development of addiction is like a vicious cycle: Chronic drug use not only realigns a person’s priorities but also may alter key brain areas necessary for judgment and self-control, further reducing the individual’s ability to control or stop their drug use.This is why, despite popular belief, willpower alone is often insufficient to overcome an addiction.And in cases when a teen does develop a pattern of repeated use, it can pose serious social and health risks, including: in brain circuits that control reward and pleasure.The brain is wired to encourage life-sustaining and healthy activities through the release of dopamine.Finally, an adolescent’s inherited genetic vulnerability; personality traits like poor impulse control or a high need for excitement; mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD; and beliefs such as that drugs are “cool” or harmless make it more likely that an adolescent will use drugs.Images of Brain Development in Healthy Children and Teens (Ages 5-20) The brain continues to develop through early adulthood.