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Dopamine and Teen Addiction

Distressed teenager standing outside with high dopamine levels and possible addiction

The teenage years are crucial for the developing brain. During this time period, the brain is adapting to new experiences, constantly changing in response to new stimuli and working toward full maturation. The malleability of the developing brain makes it vulnerable to the damaging effects of teen drug abuse. The impact of drugs and alcohol can impede brain development or stop advancement in certain regions of the brain altogether.

The brain releases dopamine in response to things that are pleasurable. Dopamine assists in increasing both the linkage between things that are pleasurable and the desire to do them again. This linkage is a powerful factor in the progression of teen addiction.

What Is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is released whenever the brain’s reward system is activated by a pleasurable sensation or behavior. The reward center of the brain is responsive to gratifying experiences and is strongly linked to memory and motivation. The reward center motivates individuals to repeat behaviors that will result in some type of reward.

The release of dopamine provokes the brain to focus on a gratifying experience, resulting in the formation of a strong memory. This powerful memory will then motivate an individual to seek out the experience again so that they can achieve those pleasurable feelings.

Dopamine levels spike during adolescence, which produces a powerful pleasurable response. This peak of dopamine during teenage brain development can illustrate why teenagers often give in to their impulses. Teens will do things and engage in certain activities to increase dopamine production so that they can feel good.

The teenage years are also a time when adolescents are especially sensitive to the influence of their peers. This influence combined with peer pressure and the search for pleasure can result in teenage addiction to drugs.

Dopamine & the Teenage Brain

Science has found that the teenage brain is not fully mature until about 23-25 years of age. The teenage brain is constantly going through powerful changes that are fueled both by genetics and by the environment. A teenager’s environment has a profound effect on the development, wiring, and existence of brain cells. Teenage drug abuse has the ability to alter adolescent genes, which can impact the development and functioning of the brain for the rest of their lives.

Dopamine is the brain chemical most accountable for feelings of pleasure and has a compelling influence on adolescents. The teenage brain has an elevated number of nerve cells, which increases dopamine levels in the brain. The elevated level of dopamine in the teenage brain suggests that adolescents may need more elation to accomplish the same level of pleasure as an adult. The compounded impacts of increased dopamine can cause a teenager to engage in more impulsive and risky behaviors to achieve this type of exhilaration, putting them at high risk for addiction.

  • Impulsiveness: Teenage impulsive behavior occurs when adolescents engage in actions without thinking. Impulsive behavior can occur in response to the brain’s strong drive to obtain a reward. Dopamine can cause a teenager who does not normally partake in negative behaviors to be impulsive and do things they might not normally do.
  • Increased Susceptibility to Addiction: Elevated levels of dopamine during adolescence can result in an increased susceptibility to drug addiction in youth. Teenagers are likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol, causing a powerful release of dopamine. This dopamine release can initiate a stronger drive to obtain the pleasurable experience again leading to teenage addiction to drugs and alcohol. The strong dopamine release can instigate an addictive cycle and be the main cause of addiction among teenagers.
  • Hyperrationality: Hyperrationality refers to thinking concretely in the here and now instead of considering the future. The teenage instinct to act in the present without considering long-term consequences can greatly influence their decision to do drugs or to drink alcohol. Adolescents frequently use substances without concern for the potential of addiction because they fail to consider long-term risks. Teenage drug abuse and addiction can result when adolescents place more emphasis on the benefits of their current behaviors than the future consequences of them. Increased dopamine production, combined with a bias that favors positive outcomes, can further increase the risk of addiction.

How Does Teen Drug Abuse Impact Dopamine Production?

When the brain’s reward circuit is activated by a pleasurable experience, the release of dopamine signals that the pleasurable experience should be remembered. The dopamine causes changes in neural connections, which makes it easier for a person to engage in the experience again, leading to the development of habits.

Teen drug abuse produces elation and prompts powerful bursts of dopamine, which reinforces the link between the drug and the resulting euphoria. Addiction results when powerful bursts of dopamine prompt the brain to obtain drugs and cause changes in the reward pathways. Environmental cues can then become associated with drugs, which can instigate intense cravings.

Drug abuse among teens can impact dopamine production in the brain. When an adolescent uses drugs, the brain produces lower amounts of dopamine in the reward circuit. This causes a decrease in a teenager’s ability to obtain pleasure from naturally rewarding experiences.

Using alcohol and drugs during adolescence can hijack the reward system, necessitating more cravings to achieve the same high. The rewiring of the reward system causes an adolescent to experience depression, a lack of motivation and an inability to enjoy things that were once pleasurable. This occurs due to the brain’s inability to produce dopamine without using drugs.

The effects of drug abuse on teens result in the adolescent needing to keep taking drugs to experience normal levels of reward. A teenager will also need to take more drugs to achieve the high that they are used to, also known as developing tolerance.

Dopamine Levels & Withdrawal

Withdrawal from drugs can result in physical, emotional and cognitive damage. When drugs are not active in the brain, dopamine levels can plummet, instigating withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Teenagers may keep using drugs just to avoid physical withdrawal symptoms and negative emotions.

When adolescents drink alcohol, the brain initially increases dopamine levels in response to alcohol intake but adapts over time to the overload of dopamine. In response, the brain begins to produce less dopamine, causing a decrease in moods. When alcohol is no longer consumed, there is a lack of dopamine, and alcohol withdrawal occurs.

 Alcohol withdrawal in teens can include symptoms of:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Confusion
  • Disrupted eating and sleeping

Prescription drug abuse among teens can cause the brain to produce more dopamine, or to block pain signals and cause elation. As this high is temporary, the brain will seek the same type of high, causing a teenager to consume higher amounts. Over time, the brain will develop a tolerance to the drug and rely on it to function. Withdrawal symptoms occur when an adolescent stops using prescription medications and can be dangerous depending on the frequency of usage.

Treatment for Teenage Drug Addiction to Restore Natural Dopamine Production

Teen addiction treatment is geared specifically for adolescents. It helps them to become abstinent, assists them in healing and works to restore the brain’s natural dopamine production. By maintaining lower levels of dopamine in the brain, dopamine can start being produced at higher levels. Once this occurs, the brain will naturally begin to produce normal levels of dopamine again when drugs and alcohol are no longer being abused.

If you or a teenager that you know is struggling with addiction, Next Generation Village can help. Next Generation Village will provide your teenager with personalized and high-quality substance abuse treatment. Contact us today to find the help you deserve.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.


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