When teens use drugs, including alcohol, the impact on the brain is significant. And occasionally, the impact is irreversible.

A major ad campaign in the ‘80s aimed to prevent drug use by showing how drugs hurt the brain. “This is your brain,” said the announcer, holding up an unbroken egg. He then cracked it into a hot skillet and let it sizzle. He continued, “This is your brain on drugs.” While it may not be as simple as the commercial says, the basic idea is indeed true. When teens use drugs, including alcohol, the impact on the brain is significant. Occasionally, the impact is irreversible.

The Impact of Drug Use on a Developing Mind

People who abuse drugs deal with serious side effects of the mind. These can include:

Allowing these harmful substances into your body does physical damage as well — the list of physical risks is endless. It includes coma and death. But these substances attack the brain first and foremost. The harder the substances and the longer you use them, the more your brain may resemble that fried egg from the commercial.

Different drugs have different effects. Brain scans show how the brain responds to various drugs and the long-term differences in people who use drugs.

The most common functions of the brain impacted by drugs are neurotransmitters (the messengers of the brain), the production of chemicals related to happiness and pleasure (dopamine and serotonin), and the prefrontal cortex (responsible for planning, decision making, self-expression and moderating social behavior).

Why Are Teens More at Risk?

Numerous studies reveal that children and teens who abuse substances are more at risk. For example, kids who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become addicted than people who start at age 21.

The teenage years are paramount to our brain development. This is often when we develop our personality, refine our skills and take on new responsibilities. Our brains are constantly shifting during this time to become fully matured. They are malleable, affected by the things we learn and experience. This makes the teenage brain susceptible to damage from toxic chemicals. And the effects of drugs and alcohol can slow down or even stop development in certain regions of the brain.

Common effects on brain development involve:

Studies show that regular marijuana use in teens changes the actual structure of the brain, impacting areas related to memory and problem-solving. This has an observable effect on cognition and academic performance. Teens who smoke pot regularly have, on average, one grade point lower than their peers. These teens lose up to eight IQ points between childhood and adulthood. Teens who drink heavy amounts of alcohol exhibit reduced memory, attention span, information processing and executive functioning.

What Are the Long-Term Consequences of Teen Drug Use?

If your teen’s development is disrupted, their life ahead becomes rife with new hurdles. The most obvious consequence is difficulty in school. Kids who get into drugs and alcohol often become outcasts among classmates — and not simply because their reputations may suffer due to their choice of habits. As their substance use slows their brain’s development, they can have massive difficulty keeping up in class. They’ll start to see their test scores drop. Their minds begin to wander during lessons. This can lead a teen to need remedial classes or even repeat grades, greatly harming their chances of getting into a good college or career.

In addition to school problems (and, in some cases, because of them), these teens may develop dangerous behaviors and habits. These can include unsafe sex, criminal behavior and the increasing risk of doing more drugs. It can become a vicious cycle that makes it harder for kids to reach their potential, form good relationships and lead happy lives.

Does My Teenager Need Rehab?

If you notice signs that your teen may be using substances, address the situation quickly to prevent permanent brain damage and the many other problems that arise from substance abuse and addiction. If addiction is present, drug rehab treatment may be needed. That said, your first step is to contact a treatment professional as soon as possible, who can determine the level of your child’s potential problem. This person might be your family doctor or your teen’s school guidance counselor.

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Editor – Melissa Carmona
Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Eric Patterson, LPC
Eric Patterson is a licensed professional counselor in the Pittsburgh area who is dedicated to helping children, adults, and families meet their treatment goals. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.