Many things change during the adolescent and teen years, including the brain. The prefrontal cortex, the area near the front of the brain that is responsible for decision-making, reasoning, and impulses, continues to grow until a person reaches their mid-20s. It is believed that this region of the brain doesn’t fully mature until age 25.
Young people who engage in long-term alcohol and drug use risk developing a substance addiction, a medical condition that can permanently change the brain’s wiring when it is still being formed.
When heavy users in their early years stop using addictive substances, the brain is affected despite the practice being stopped. The decision to use drugs in these formative years can cause complications for years to come. It is best to stay away from harmful substances during this time. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, drugs are chemicals that enter the body in a number of ways, including smoking, injecting, inhaling, or eating them. However they get into the body, it is certain they will affect the brain’s communication system, NIDA says, and “tamper with the way nerve cells normally send, receive, and process information.”
Once abused drugs enter the body, they either directly or indirectly affect the brain’s reward system. One thing that happens is the drugs overload the system with a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Research shows that abused drugs can release from two to 10 times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards, such as eating and sex, do. The reward system of a teenager or young adult is still in the development stages, so excessive drug use can compromise the brain and make it harder for the person to return to normal.
Dopamine sends “feel good” signals throughout the body and is present in the regions of the brain that control movement, emotion, motivation, and pleasurable feelings. When the reward system is overstimulated, it produces euphoric effects that encourage continued drug use so those effects can be felt over and over again. This teaches users to continue to take drugs.
“Our brains are wired to ensure that we will repeat life-sustaining activities by associating those activities with pleasure or reward,” NIDA says, explaining how stimulation of the pleasure circuit leads to repeated drug use. Whenever this reward circuit is activated, the brain notes that something important is happening that needs to be remembered and teaches us to do it again and again without thinking about it. Because drugs abuse stimulates the same circuit, we learn to abuse drugs in the same way.”
Abusing drugs at early ages makes a rocky period of development even rockier. Behavioral changes stemming from drug use is common among young people who use substances. Some drug users in the 18-25 age range may show, a result of their drug use, that:
Drug addiction on the developing brain also affects other neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which is responsible for stabilizing moods and regulating emotions; gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical that regulates the stress response and lowers anxiety naturally; and norepinephrine, which is known as the stress hormone and speeds up the body’s “fight or flight” response.
Not all drugs are created equal or affect the brain and body the same since all of the substances have different chemical makeups. Still, most drugs, whether legal or illegal, change how the brain works. Excessive, chronic, or long-term use is sure to affect the body. Here, we take a quick look at how several drugs affect the brain and other parts of the body.
Depressants cause the brain to slow down. Drinking alcohol in the early years while the brain is still forming can put people age 18 and younger at greater risk of having memory problems and other alcohol-related problems in life. Generally, depressants, which also include prescription benzodiazepine medications such as Xanax, Valium, and barbiturates are all central nervous system depressants.
When depressants are misused or abused, the effects on the brain can exhibit in the following ways:
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Stimulants speed up the nervous system and increase brain activity. These drugs also produce too much dopamine, making users more alert and giving them more energy. The brain comes to rely on drugs to get its “feel-good chemicals” and stops producing them on its own. Long-term stimulant use can permanently rewire the brain and affect other areas, such as blood pressure and heart rate. Addiction sets in with repeated use. When stimulant abuse stops, users can enter into withdrawal as a result of their abstinence. Examples of stimulants include the prescription drugs Adderall and Ritalin and the illegal drugs cocaine, synthetic marijuana, methamphetamine, bath salts, and ecstasy.
Heroin quickly enters the brain and binds to the opioid receptors on cells that are located to areas, including those that are linked to the feelings of pain and pleasure as well as those that control heart rate, breathing, and sleeping. The drugs mimic the brain’s natural chemicals, but they do not activate nerve cells in the same manner as a natural neurotransmitter does. Like other drugs, heroin and opioids also flood the brain’s reward center with dopamine.
Dissociative drugs, such as PCP (phencyclidine), ketamine, and DXM (dextromethorphan), cause users to have distortions in their sight and hearing and make them feel like they are floating and detached from reality or even their own bodies. They disrupt glutamate throughout the brain at certain types of receptors, according to NIDA. Glutamate, it says, is a chemical that plays a significant role in cognition, emotion, and the perception of pain. PCP changes how dopamine works. According to NIDA, “Use of dissociative drugs can also cause anxiety, memory loss, and impaired motor function, including body tremors and numbness.”
Hallucinogens are drugs that cause users to have hallucinations, which are distortions in a person’s perceptions of reality. Examples include ayahuasca, DMT (dimethyltryptamine), (Peyote (mescaline), LSD (D-lysergic acid diethylamide), and psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine). They are not addictive, but that makes them no less dangerous. Long-term or chronic hallucinogen use can cause psychosis, schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders. NIDA writes, “Research suggests that hallucinogens work at least partially by temporarily disrupting communication between brain chemical systems throughout the brain and spinal cord.” Hallucinogens can interfere with both serotonin and glutamate.
Inhalants are chemicals that users breathe in through the nose or mouth with a paper bag or other source.
The breathing in of chemicals is known as “huffing.” The use of these items, which include paint thinners, glue, gases, aerosol sprays and more, are popular among young people who want to get high. The items are easily accessible because the cost is so low and they’re easy to experiment with and disguise since many of them are everyday items found around the house.
Teenagers make up the majority of the population of people who use inhalants. NIDA writes that inhalants affect the central nervous system and slow down activity in the brain.
Short-term effects are similar to those of alcohol intoxication.
Inhalants users may also experience hallucinations or delusions. Brain damage can result if oxygen flow to the brain is disrupted.
It is estimated that at least some 20 million people in the United States use drugs and alcohol. Excessive alcohol or drug use will not happen to everyone who uses these substances. But the reality is abusing drugs is a slippery slope and engaging it this practice will kick off an addiction for some.
The American Psychiatric Association defines addiction as “complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence.”
Addiction is a brain disease because drugs change the brain’s structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long-lasting and lead to harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.”
Addiction is treatable, NIDA says, and with services from the drug or alcohol rehabilitation that can meet someone’s needs, recovering substance users can work through their addiction and replace negative behaviors with effective habits and thought processes that can support sobriety.
NIDA cites research saying that addiction treatment should at least be 90 days to give users the best chances at recovery.
Recovering users who receive recovery treatment should prepare themselves for the possibility that long-term drug use can permanently alter the way the brain works. These chemicals can forever change the way neurons and brain circuits work, even after drug and alcohol users stop using and enter a period of abstinence. These permanent changes happen as a result of repeated drug use. Recovering from drug use comes with highs and lows, which only add to the challenges teenagers and young adults already face. It can take the brain a while to regulate low dopamine levels when it is used to having more than enough of the chemical in its system. It can take considerable time to recover, so young drug users may struggle with emotional highs and lows. They may feel depressed, tired, or just numb and unable to enjoy activities.
NIDA. (2020, September 9). Brain and Addiction. Retrieved from https://teens.drugabuse.gov/drug-facts/brain-and-addiction
NIDA. (2018, March 6). Prescription CNS Depressants DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-cns-depressants
NIDA. (2020, June 2). What Are the Effects of Common Dissociative Drugs on the Brain and Body? Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/hallucinogens-dissociative-drugs/what-are-effects-common-dissociative-drugs-brain-body
NIDA. (2019, April 22). Hallucinogens DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/hallucinogens
American Psychiatric Association. Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/addiction/what-is-addiction