How Drugs Affect the Brain of a Teenager

Recent studies have shown the detrimental effects of drugs on teenage brains. It’s a well-known fact that human brains don’t fully mature until the age of twenty-five. With this information, and the knowledge that no matter what we say, teens are still going to experiment, what sorts of effects can we expect to see on such young brains involved with drugs? 

What sort of results spring from casual experimentation and full-on addiction? And if such changes are discovered, what do they mean for the long term health of a teenager involved with drugs?

Group Acceptance

Even before the drugs have actually been tried, they’re already affecting the brain of our young teenager. Schmoozing at a party with his friends, watching them laugh and joke and partake in a strange substance that seems to be working wonders on their moods. Our teenager is curious but remembers that drugs can become a major problem. 

Even so, surrounded by his friends, he doesn’t want to feel out of place. He doesn’t want to feel like a loser, a killjoy who doesn’t like to have fun. He doesn’t want to ruin the mood of the party. He wants his friends to keep being his friends, to keep liking him. He decides to try a little of what they’re having. After all, it’s just this once, right? We don’t want our friends to think we’re uncool, right?

Dopamine Overload

Dopamine is essentially the ‘feel-good’ chemical, the one our brain releases when it, well, feels good. Teenage brains are naturally a little more on the experimental side. It’s how they learn where their boundaries are. The problem therein lies in the fact that they’re more open to experimenting with things they probably shouldn’t, like say, the fancy new happy pills one of their friends found in their mom’s medicine cabinet. 

All it takes is the first attempt, the very first overload of dopamine as the brain feels its first high. Former addicts call this first high ‘chasing the dragon’ because every subsequent high can never measure up to the legendary first one, and the pursuit is just so elusive from there.


Once the need takes over, other priorities fall by the wayside. The societal need for family and friends is now diminished. The teenager’s brain is focused only on one thing, that final high. Interaction with loved ones takes a back seat, the need for social acceptance becomes less thrilling, less necessary. They may even lash out at loved ones around them who have done nothing except try to help them in their chaotic descent. This is ironic, since this social need may very well have been the cause of the problem.

Mental Damage

Even if addiction doesn’t arise from drug usage, it still leaves lasting damage to the developing brain. Even recreational use can damage crucial functions of the brain; memory and spatial recognition, attention span, cognitive function, etc. And once gone, these functions are hard to repair. Teen addiction aside, the long-lasting mental damage that drugs can cause in one form or another is enough to make this a serious issue to consider, especially if the damage is permanent.

Early Learning Window

Because the teen brain is still developing, it doesn’t necessarily function like an adult’s. A teenager may act like an adult, or be told to, but mentally, they’re still children. This means that their brains are still hard-wired for quick learning. This means that when they receive signals for something that feels good, their brains immediately pick up on this and demand more of it more quickly. 

This new experience is absorbed extremely quickly and misconstrued as a positive experience as a result of the positive feedback it gets. Adults don’t have this same window anymore as teenagers do, which makes these experiences all the riskier.

Thrill-Seeking, Impulsive Behavior

Teens don’t have the same impulse control that adults do, which means that anything they try, they’re more likely to keep doing without stopping to think about it. And thanks to already existing baseline levels of dopamine in their brains, they’re bored and ready for anything new and exciting. 

If they find something exciting once, the chances are high that they’ll do it again even more fervently than before. And they’ll keep trying it until either the thrill wears off or they become completely dependent on it for whatever dosage of dopamine they can get, which invariably leads to addiction.

Teenagers are particularly receptive to new and intriguing things that cross their paths, which makes the danger of drugs so much more potent for them than for adults. Fortunately, they can be treated, often with great results if the problem is caught and diagnosed early.