One way to look at addiction is to consider it a form of learning, a type of learning that is extremely effective in its ability to affect the adolescent brain, report researchers working under an NIH grant. The maturation process of the brain may cause teens and young adults to become addicted faster than older adults, because the impulse control centers of the brain are not fully developed in the younger cohort.
Drugs not only interfere with the normal processing functions of the brain, they actually change both the structure and function of the brain. Over time, drug use and abuse can lead to addiction with all its negative, lifelong consequences. Neuroscientists have reported for years that the human brain is not fully mature until around the age of twenty-five. Further, the research being conducted on brain development at several academic institutions suggests that the maturing brain may be at particular risk and highly vulnerable to both the short-term and long-term use and abuse of drugs. There is no question that substance use during the teen years significantly increases the chance of developing a substance abuse problem later in life.
Dr. Frances Jensen is a professor and chair of the Department of Neurology at the University Of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. In a recent interview, Dr. Jensen said: “The last place to be connected—to be fully myelinated—is the front of your brain. And what is in the front? Your prefrontal cortex and your frontal cortex. These are areas where we have insight, empathy, these executive functions such as impulse control, risk-taking behavior.”
This neuroscientific research helps physicians, scientists and addiction professionals understand why teens are particularly susceptible to substance abuse, alcohol abuse, (tobacco) smoking, and even the over-use of electronic games and digital devices. These behaviors fold in all too well with a brain that is still developing its impulse control. Knowing these facts, we are better able to explain why teens and young adults make decisions that are risky and can lead to health and safety concerns. These individuals are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of particular behaviors. Fortunately, this information can allow us to redesign prevention strategies. It is imperative that prevention programs that promote a drug-free lifestyle are expanded along with care for substance-abusing youth.
Previous studies have given us similar information. For example, we know that chronic marijuana users between 13 and 17, individuals who use marijuana at least several times a week if not daily for at least a year, consistently are shown to have decreased verbal IQ and functional MRIs show differences in brain function between marijuana users and non-users when completing various tasks. These represent permanent changes to the brain, caused by marijuana use.
It is critical that parents, addiction treatment professionals, and educators understand the specific needs of teens, not only to prevent addiction, but to treat it. More important, teens should be empowered to make healthy decisions by being taught what’s going on inside them, how they are developing. By helping teens understand their feelings and biological development, they can better navigate relationships and health choices, allowing them to create a more resilient, healthier lifestyle. Early and ongoing education is an important factor to help adolescents and young adults develop to their fullest potential.