Are Teens' Brains More Vulnerable To Addiction?

By Maggie Ethridge 09/19/18

It all comes down to the developing brain. 

Woman with a brain illustration drawn over her head.

While teenagers have always experimented with mind-altering substances, they are vulnerable to addiction than ever. The combination of modern drug availability and the specific vulnerability of the adolescent brain make the teen years more susceptible to addiction than in adulthood.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly 35.6% of high school students say they have tried marijuana, 60.4% have tried alcohol, while 14% say they have misused opioids to get high.

The teenage human brain is not "fully wired" Dr. Frances Jensen, chair of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, told the Philly Voice. Because the teenage brain is literally still growing—still building the synapses that connect portions of the brain and create connections for memories, skills and rewards—it has high synaptic plasticity.

And this, the Philly Voice notes, makes the teenage brain specifically vulnerable to addiction.

While this plasticity allows for powerful healing properties as well as learning abilities, it also leaves the brain more vulnerable to addiction.

It has been widely discussed in the last decade that the teen brain has an undeveloped frontal lobe, the area primarily responsible for making decisions. Teens are notoriously prone to impulsive decisions and struggle to see future consequences as a reality.

The connections in the teen frontal lobe are not yet covered with the myelin sheath, that allows signals to travel rapidly throughout the brain.

"That plays into getting addicted in the first place," Jensen told the Philly Voice. "There's this increased propensity to take risks and try substances—despite the fact that you might know it's really bad for you."

Yet Jensen points out a bright side, “If you can get them into rehab, you have better results in rehab. You can undo the circuit. You still have a better ability to remold the circuit—if you can capture it."

This is why programs for drug and alcohol rehabilitation often incorporate cognitive behavioral therapy for teenagers struggling with addiction.

"They are really good learners at this age," Jensen told the Philly Voice. "They're very interested in their brains. They're very interested in what drives their behavior and why they did that stupid thing on Saturday night."

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.