While drug & alcohol abuse can create damaging, lasting effects on users, adolescent-teen brains stand to lose far more that that of their adult counterparts.



 How drug and alcohol abuse affects teen-adolescent brains vs. adult brainsHave you ever looked at a teenager and wondered, “why did you do that?”  From mood swings to risk taking to utterly absurd behaviors at times, “normal teenage behavior” can appear to be anything but, in the eyes of normal parents and other adults.

Research does reveal that patterns of brain development during these formative years play a significant reason as to why teens act the way they do.  In fact, medical and behavioral health researchers have learned that it takes the human brain about 25 years to fully develop. The brain can be said to be on “training wheels” during this period, as it is not as of yet gained the stability, logic and reasoning as compared to that of a healthy, normal adult brain. A huge burst of development happens during adolescence, and that burst can explain a lot of unpredictable – and sometimes risky teen behavior.  Once you factor in the variable of drug or alcohol abuse into a teenager’s brain, the effects, sadly, can be far more detrimental as compared to, say, the brain of a healthy 30 year old.

If a physician were to conduct a PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography) of an addict’s brain 24 hours after using, 6 months later and 1 year later, lay people would reasonably presume they were viewing 3 different brains. Additionally, those drug addicts and alcoholics who started their substance abuse prior to age 25, can often find themselves facing a much larger mountain to climb during the early sobriety process.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain (the decision making part of the brain) is not fully formed in all humans until the age of 25, so when drugs and alcohol are introduced during these early time frames, it can take twice as long for the brain to return to homeostasis (a state of psychological equilibrium). It is believed that many adults with mental health issues (i.e., depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, ADD, etc.), and of whom began to abuse drug and alcohol during their teenage years, find themselves in this situation whereas it is quite possible they would otherwise not be facing these conditions had they not engaged in such behaviors, or at least to a substantially lesser degree.

Psychiatrists often cannot accurately diagnose a drug addict/alcohol for a mental health disorder in their first year of recovery, as many present with the same symptoms, but resulting from different causes.  For instance, those new in recovery many times experience a condition called “Anhedonia,” defined as the inability to experience pleasure.  So while it may present outwardly as clinical depression to the psychiatrist and patient, it actually is simply part of the normalization process as the brain navigates the ups and downs of life, but without that huge flood of pleasure center chemicals resulting from the drug or alcohol abuse.  However, what the psychiatrist can do is help to manage their symptoms and then after the patient is sober a year, a more formal accurate mental health diagnosis can be made.


Young people versus adults. What’s the difference?

  • A young person’s body cannot cope with alcohol the same way an adult’s can.
  • Drinking is more harmful to teens & adolescents because their brains are still developing and this critical growth period can lead to lifelong damage in brain function, particularly as it relates to memory, motor-skills and coordination.
  • Effects last longer – a teenager’s brain has more receptors and tends to hold onto the drug or alcohol for a prolonged period of time as compared to the adult brain.  Cognitive function is impaired for longer in the form of memory, concentration, and learning ability.
  • It is believed that teens become addicted more quickly to drugs and alcohol, as well as to a higher level of dependency.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse are more likely to cause long-lasting and sometimes permanent effects on teen brains.
  • One of the most astounding findings is the likelihood of one’s IQ dropping as they get older, resulting from prior drug/alcohol abuse during their adolescence.
  • Research has shown that the use of drugs and alcohol in adolescents affects the productivity of stress hormones, causing them to permanently have trouble dealing with stressful situations, thereby increasing erratic behaviors.
  • Finally, research shows that the use of drugs and alcohol in adolescents affect the productivity of stress hormones, causing them to permanently struggle in dealing with stressful situations. This inability to cope further drives the individual in the direction of drug and alcohol abuse as an immediate relief tool.


In the final analysis, there is no question as to the detriment caused directly resulting from drugs and alcohol during these critical years in one’s development.  If you are a parent who is currently in the grips of such struggles with an adolescent son or daughter, we highly encourage you to take whatever steps possible to help thwart his or her destructive path, as it carries with it lifelong repercussions.

While Illuminate Recovery Center only works with individuals ages 18 and up, we do take part in an network of highly regarded addiction and mental health treatment centers throughout Arizona, as well as nationwide, and are here for you 7 days a week to share any and all information that might help with your situation.  This is a battle very much worth fighting, and we’re here to help you however we can!.


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