The Effects of Drugs and Alcohol on the Teenage Brain

Jake Newby

| 6 min read

Substance misuse can seriously harm to the human brain. The short and long-term risks of abusing substances are even greater for teenagers, because their brains are still developing.
Experimentation with substance use is common for adolescents. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, at least one in eight teens abused an illicit substance in 2023. The report states that roughly two million or 8.33% of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 used drugs in the last month (also defined as “current use.”) Another 1.19 million 12-to-17-year-olds reported binge drinking in the last month.
Common risk factors for teen drug abuse – according to the Mayo Clinic – can include:
  • A family history of substance abuse.
  • A mental or behavioral health condition, such as depression, anxiety or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Impulsive or risk-taking behavior.
  • A history of traumatic events, such as experiencing abuse.
  • Low self-esteem or feelings of social rejection.
  • Family rejection of sexual orientation or gender identity

How are adolescent brains susceptible to substance use?

When it comes to the relationship some teens form with drugs and alcohol, one certain neuroscientific factor stands out – the pleasure center of a teen’s brain develops faster than the parts responsible for decision-making and risk analysis.
The first parts of the brain to develop are the cerebellum, which controls physical activity, the amygdala, which regulates emotion, and the nucleus accumbens, which controls motivation.
The prefrontal cortex is sometimes referred to as the “good judgment” part of the brain, and it doesn’t fully develop until a person is in their mid-20s. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for impulse control and more reasoned thought. It helps with complex behavioral performance and executive brain functions.

What makes the teenage brain susceptible to addiction

Teens tend to be risk takers. As they navigate academics and the social scene, they search for identities, and often act impulsively, take chances, and make mistakes that they are less likely to make later in life, when the brain's cognitive control system fully develops. On a social level, they may find it easier to fit in and get along with peers by succumbing to drug or alcohol use. To many teens, this feeling of acceptance can outweigh the negative health effects substances can have on their body and mind.
For decades, research has shown that the substances humans most commonly abuse create a neurochemical reaction that significantly increases the amount of dopamine – known as the “feel-good hormone – released by neurons in the brain's reward center. Substances like drugs and alcohol overload the brain with dopamine and send too many “feel good” signals. As time goes on and tolerance is built, the brain needs more and more of the substance to feel its positive effects.
When a person stops taking substances, the effects can linger, and dopamine levels can remain low. Eventually, the brain restores dopamine balance, but it takes time. Since teens have an over-active impulse to seek pleasure and aren’t equipped with the brain capacity to fully process consequences, they are especially vulnerable to drugs and alcohol. And because their reward center is still being developed, a teen’s ability to rebound after taking substances may be compromised because of how substances affect the brain.
This can be especially true with underage drinking, and make teens more vulnerable to addiction than adults. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, children who start drinking before age 15 are six times more likely to develop dependence compared to a 21-year-old.

How substance use affects the teen brain

Substance use in teens can leads to abnormalities in brain functioning. According to the Addiction Center, these abnormalities and damaging effects can:
  • Cause missed opportunities during a period of heightened learning potential.
  • Create problems with memory.
  • Ingrain expectations of unhealthy habits into brain circuitry.
  • Inhibit development of perceptual abilities.
  • Interfere with neurotransmitters and damage connections within the brain.
  • Reduce the ability to experience pleasure.
Mental health issues can be a risk factor for substance use, but they can also be worsened through substance use, creating a vicious cycle. A 2024 study published in JAMA Pediatrics determined that anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and suicidal thoughts are linked to the use of substances like alcohol, tobacco and marijuana. Researchers stated that when these symptoms of mental health were examined, each symptom was elevated no matter the substance.

Recognizing warning signs of teen substance use

Behavioral signs of substance use can include:
  • Abandoning long-time friends and suddenly making new ones.
  • Breaking rules and withdrawing from the family.
  • Demonstrating irresponsible behavior, such as ignoring or breaking curfew.
  • Declining performance in school.
  • Frequently requesting money.
  • Losing interest in hobbies and activities.
  • Missing school or work.
  • Resisting discipline or advice.
  • Sudden or extreme change in eating habits, sleeping patterns, physical appearance.

How loved ones can help

Parents and loved ones can provide the sort of guidance, wisdom and experience needed to help steer teens away from substance use. Here are some preventive strategies to consider.
Ask for their perspective. Listen to your teen's opinions and questions about drugs. Ask them what they see and hear about at school. Cultivate an honest, safe space that doesn’t lead to lectures, scare tactics and punishment.
Explain consequences and reasons to avoid drugs. While substance use can seem cool on the surface and in the short-term, teens just do not have the wisdom and foresight to know about the long-term consequences. Help them become aware by discussing health consequences, relationship troubles, financial issues, legal troubles and the possibility for overdose.
Discuss ways to resist peer pressure. Brainstorm ways your teen can avoid drugs in real-life situations, such as parties or in after-school get-togethers.
Keep kids involved in physical activity and other activities they may have already established as enjoying.
Monitor friend groups and stay engaged with parents of your teen’s friends to share information. If your teen’s friends use drugs or alcohol, your teen might feel pressured to try them, too.
Monitor media messages. Social media, movies, television shows and music can glamorize drug use. Talk to your teen about what they consume online and on TV.
Set a good example. Your teen may be likelier to engage in drug and alcohol use if it’s considered commonplace at home. Limit alcohol use, choose not to use drugs and keep an inventory of all prescription drugs in the house.
Set and enforce rules for your teen’s behavior. Clearly explain the rules and consequences and follow through with appropriate consequences when the rules are broken.
If you know a teen who is showing dangerous signs of drug or alcohol abuse, you can help. Resources can include schools, medical professionals, mental health specialists and treatment providers. If you suspect your teen is involved in drug use, contact a treatment provider to discuss treatment options.
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