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Adolescence can be a challenging time. Teens confront pressures from all directions: parents, siblings, friends, enemies, frenemies, crushes, teachers, administrators, and most of all, themselves.
The good news is, in order to handle these pressures, teens are equipped with the most adaptive brains on the planet.
Until the brain is fully developed (sometime in the mid-20s) teens soak up knowledge like a sponge. With new information, they can shift their worldviews easily, and with very little acquaintance, they can form lifelong bonds. This wondrous malleability is responsible for both the most exciting aspects of adolescent life and its unique risks. Substance abuse is one of these risks.
FCD knows that teens are curious about the role the adolescent brain plays in alcohol and other drug use, abuse, and addiction. So we asked for the help of students at the Lincoln School in Nepal, in order to share with you what is on teens' minds - when it comes to their brains.
These are the students' insightful questions, and FCD's answers:
What is it about having a teenaged brain that draws teens to alcohol and other drug use?
Consider some of the stereotypes about teenagers: that they're "impulsive," "reckless," "irresponsible," "moody," "rebellious." These stereotypes have roots in adolescent brain development, and especially within the following three areas of the brain:
1. The limbic system governs emotional life, particularly in regard to feelings of fear and stress. These brain structures are very active during adolescence.
2. The prefrontal cortex controls personality, reasoning, decision-making, and impulse control. If you think about those stereotypes, it probably won't surprise you to learn that the prefrontal cortex is still developing in teens.
3. The reward pathway is a series of brain structures that links the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex. Through sensations of pleasure, the reward pathway reinforces ties between one's emotions and one's reasoning.
During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex is the last area of the brain to develop. As a result, pleasure and emotion - not reasoning - guide most teen behavior.
This means teens are more prone than adults to engage in risk-taking behaviors. Their impulses are very powerful, while their ability to control those impulses is less so. To simplify: in teens, the "on" switch is fully developed, while the "off" switch is still growing.
Meanwhile, adolescents are inundated with social and cultural messages concerning the risks and rewards of substance abuse. Most of these messages underestimate the risks of use and overestimate the rewards.
Some teens are guided to substance use, because they believe it will be a low-risk, high-reward behavior. The evidence-based social norms approach to prevention tells us this is not really so. In fact, FCD's social-norms based survey reveals that students who suffer the most severe health consequences of use are those who have also underestimated the risks of use and overestimated how prevalent use is among their peers.
How does the teen brain respond to peer pressure?
The pressure teens put on themselves to "fit in" or "be cool" is more important than the pressure teens put on each other. In terms of the brain, peer pressure is a state of anxiety: it's the worry that, in order to be accepted, you must change yourself in ways you do not wish.
Psychologist Erik Erikson said that the major challenge of adolescence is forming both a healthy personal identity and healthy peer relationships.
So internal peer pressure - the pressure teens put on themselves - is the anxious feeling that they won't be able to form peer relationships while maintaining a personal identity.
The good news is that:
- Every teenager with a best friend, or a close-knit group of friends, already fits in. Fitting in is just belonging to a group of people who accept you for who you are.
- Most teenagers are making healthy decisions. So, the decision not to abuse alcohol or other drugs is, in reality, the best way for teens to make sure they're doing what "everyone else" is.
Unfortunately, teens often assume that risky behavior is expected of them. A seventh grader may think, "When I'm 16, all my friends will probably drink." This assumption may have a very real effect on how that seventh grader chooses her friendships when she becomes 16. By imagining risky situations in their future, teens are more likely to seek out those very same environments later. So peer pressure doesn't just happen in the moment when a teen persuades another teen to drink - it began years before.
In terms of the brain, remember that internal peer pressure registers emotionally, not logically, for teens. When students can feel better about making healthy decisions that maintain their personal identities, they are more likely to enjoy safe peer environments where alcohol and other drug abuse is less likely to be a compelling choice.
Are teen brains really more susceptible to peer pressure than adult brains?
Teenagers may be more susceptible to peer pressure, but adults experience it too!
A teen's extra challenges with peer pressure are rooted in brain development. Recall that the still-developing prefrontal cortex is what helps control a teen's budding personality. Teens' "work-in-progress" status can make it difficult for them to decide whether or not a risky behavior conflicts with their forming self-image. If you aren't yet sure who you are, it's harder to say, "This behavior isn't me."
In addition to figuring out their identities, adolescents are also still learning to control their emotions. Teens are more likely than adults to act out of emotion, and anxiety - the primary emotion of peer pressure - is a powerful motivator. When anxiety is present, teens may be less likely than adults to make the healthy decisions that prevent their abuse of substances.
If teenage alcohol or other drug use seems likely to reduce "negative" emotions, and an emotionally-driven teen does not realize the many risks of use, the stage is set for an unhealthy decision. An adult in the same scenario is more likely to experience the anxiety less intensely, to better understand the risks, and to conclude that stress relief through substance abuse isn't worth it.
Once inside a teen's body, what do alcohol and other drugs actually do to the teen brain?
All addictive substances affect the reward pathway of the brain through which teens are highly motivated. Alcohol and other addictive drugs increase the number of reward-related chemicals, and especially the amount of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, in the brain. This increase can result in feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and relief from stress. Most addictive substances impair judgment too, which can lead to a teen's risky decision-making.
Dopamine is an interesting chemical. Think of those times you've laughed until you lost your breath. That's dopamine at work. But despite the fact that dopamine causes pleasure, its true job is not to make people feel good.
Dopamine's real job is to motivate survival-related behavior (sleeping, eating, etc.) and to encourage pro-social behavior, like forming bonds of friendship through laughter.
What makes addictive substances so risky is that their effects override the natural and healthy messages of the human brain. When alcohol and other drugs unnaturally increase dopamine in the brain, they progressively alter a teen's reward pathway. What was once a healthily functioning survival mechanism can become a broken tool, damaged by substance abuse to create addiction.
How do different substances act differently in the brain?
Substances of abuse often fit into three categories: stimulants, depressants, and hallucinogens. These categories mark some of the differences between the neurochemical effects of various substances.
1. Depressants inhibit, or slow down, the brain and its functions, resulting in lowered energy, breathing, heart rate, and body temperature.
2. Stimulants excite, or speed up, the brain and its functions, resulting in increased energy, breathing, heart rate, and body temperature.
3. Hallucinogens impair the brain and body's perception of reality, resulting in delusional thoughts, bizarre physical motions, and the experience of sights, sounds, tastes, and sensations that do not truly exist.
What's the difference between these substances in the teen brain and the adult brain?
A process called myelination affects how alcohol and other drugs can impact the teen and adult brain differently.
Brain cells, called neurons, are covered and protected with a fatty substance called myelin. Neurons communicate with one another through electrochemical messages. Myelin helps to send these messages from one brain cell to the next. It also protects brain cells from the damage these electrochemical signals could otherwise cause.
While the neurons in an adult brain are well myelinated, the maturing neurons in a teen brain are still going through the process of myelination.
As a result, teen brain cells send "louder" messages to one another than do adult brain cells. So, teens actually experience more intense sensations of pleasure from enjoyable activities than do adults. They also experience negative emotions - like anxiety, stress, and depression - more intensely.
This means that teens may crave the alleviation of negative emotions more urgently than adults, because these emotions are truly felt more deeply.
It also means that when teens engage in risky behaviors like alcohol and other drug abuse, the reward pathway of the teen brain is highly sensitive to substances' effects.
Which substances are associated with long-term effects, and what are these effects?
Use of any addictive substance can be risky and comes with consequences. Long-term effects are not the only consequences! Instead, long-term effects happen after substance abuse has already caused plenty of other negative consequences for teens.
So when considering long-term consequences, remember that immediate and short-term consequences happen first! It is important to intervene on teenage use of substances as soon as you notice any risk or consequence.
If someone is suffering from the long-term physiological effects of alcohol or other drug abuse, he has likely continued with problem use in spite of humiliating experiences, relationship difficulties, and other health and social consequences.
The long-term effects of alcohol abuse include:
- liver damage
- heart problems
- "beer belly"
- physical dependence on alcohol producing other dangerous health conditions.
Tobacco use also produces long-term effects, including:
- reduced lung capacity, if smoked
- blackened or yellowed teeth
- early wrinkle formation.
The long-term effects of marijuana are less well-known to many students and are the subject of continuing study in the scientific community.
Some long-term effects of chronic marijuana use, however, are clear:
- impaired problem solving
- arrested emotional development
- difficulty with memory recall
- disruptive, chronic, and persistent lack of motivation
- increased risk of mental health disorders other than addiction, including:
- mood disorders (e.g., major depressive disorder)
- anxiety disorders (e.g., generalized anxiety disorder)
- psychotic disorders (e.g., schizophrenia).
Other substances will produce their own long-term effects. In order to prevent the risks of teen alcohol and other drug abuse, teens and the adults who care for them must engage in critical thinking about substances, researching and coming to understand the realities of use.
Given the teen brain's unique vulnerability to substance use, abuse, and addiction, it is extremely important that teens learn about the immediate, short-term, and long-term consequences of any substance use.
Adolescence may be challenging, but the teen brain is up to the task. A teen brain will flex, adapt, and grow in ways an adult brain cannot. The creative, engaging questions posed to FCD by Lincoln School students are an example.
While teens are constantly preparing to meet the challenges of an adult world, making too many risky decisions in the teen years while the brain is still developing may throw off the course of that development in ways that add an undue burden. Using substances as a response to peer pressure is one such risky decision; it makes healthy personality development harder. Alleviating particularly intense negative emotions through overstimulation of an already sensitive reward pathway is another risky choice; it damages the brain, predisposes teens to addiction, and makes having healthy fun more difficult.
Learning to meet challenges, make healthy decisions, and have healthy fun can be exceptionally rewarding for growing teens. If teens take very good care of their brains during adolescence, their brains will continue to take very good care of them for the rest of their lives!
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Clark, D.B., Thatcher, D.L., & Tapert, S.F. (2008). Alcohol, psychological dysregulation, and adolescent brain development. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, 32(3), 375-385. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2007.00601.x.
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Author and Contributors
David Sherrell joined FCD as a Prevention Specialist in 2009. He was educated at independent schools and Vassar College, where his studies included Developmental Psychology and Political Science. David has experience as a chemical dependency counseling intern and a mental health worker, in addition to certification as an alcohol and drug studies specialist. He holds a degree in Psychology from the University of Phoenix.
Students in Lincoln School's Teen Brain class are taught by Renee Comesotti. These upper school students study the structure, functioning, and development of the teen brain from a neuropsychological perspective. Lincoln School, located in Kathmandu, Nepal, is an independent, co-educational day school for students of all nationalities in preschool through grade 12. The school offers an American curriculum with an international perspective.