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Drugs and Teen Brain Development

Alcohol, drugs, and the brain do not play nicely together. Addiction can cause tremendous harm to the brain — especially during the teen years, when critical brain development is occurring.

A pensive teenager sitting on the steps outside of an office building.

How Does Addiction Affect the Brain?

The effects of drugs on the brain are intense. Most drugs — including alcohol — work by flooding a person with “feel good” brain chemicals. For example, alcohol releases endorphins; many drugs release dopamine. When teens do drugs, their brains receive a powerful rush, engaging the reward system. Some drugs cause a chemical surge 2–10 times stronger than any natural, pleasurable activity such as eating or laughing with friends.

The human brain is wired to recreate events that cause pleasure, so it “enjoys” the chemical rush provided by drugs and alcohol. Thus, the brain wants to repeat that rush — it physically adjusts its makeup, forming new pathways that make the rush easier to achieve. Unfortunately, these new paths in your teenager’s brain “want” to be used. This urge is known as cravings.

When you understand the chemical and biological complexities that drive addiction, it is easier to understand that addiction is a brain disease. Like diabetes and hypertension, sheer willpower alone cannot manage addiction — it requires professional medical treatment.

Understanding Brain Development in Teens

Three teenage girls sitting in the grass doing homework and drinking coffee.

In the past, scientists believed that the brain was fully mature by the end of adolescence. However, recent studies on teen addiction and brain development have found that gray matter remains in motion, growing and developing until the early 20s. At that point, the brain finally begins to look like an adult organ.

The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop. It is responsible for planning, emotion control, and judgment. If drugs and alcohol are present during prefrontal cortex development, then your child may struggle with issues like emotional regulation and task follow-through.

Binge Drinking and the Teen Brain

Whether a person is 14 or 40 years old, excessive drinking can cause brain damage. However, evidence suggests that the teenage brain responds uniquely to alcohol. For example, people who begin abusing alcohol during their teen years are at a higher risk for addiction later in life. (The same principle applies to other addictive substances — if one person engages in drug use in high school while another doesn’t touch a drug until age 24, the first teen is more likely to develop addiction disease later in life.)

While we do not know the full effects of alcohol on teenage brain development, we are aware that heavy drinking in teens can reduce cognition. If your child habitually abuses alcohol, they may experience a decrease in their memory, attention span, information processing, and executive function. Consequently, teen alcoholism makes some basic life tasks more difficult, such as planning, learning, and exhibiting sound judgment.

Long-Term Effects of Drugs and Alcohol on the Brain

Even with medical treatment, addiction can cause permanent damage if it endures for an extended period. For example, a teen who suffered from heroin addiction for multiple years may — even in adulthood — struggle to experience pleasure from everyday activities. That is because their brain was permanently rewired to crave the chemical rush provided by heroin, which offers much more dopamine than any other pleasurable activity, like eating a favorite dinner or enjoying a concert. Heroin and teens are an especially devastating match due to the extremely addictive, brain-altering nature of the drug.

Although some damage may be irreparable, there’s good news too. Often young brains can recover from the effects of drug and alcohol abuse if the substance is stopped before too much damage occurs. The sooner you get your child the help they need, the better.

Drug Rehab for Teens in Florida

A group of young professionals sitting around a table during a business meeting.

If your teenager is struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, it is time to take action. We understand how difficult this is for you — and we want to help. As you explore outpatient and inpatient drug treatment centers in Florida, consider your child’s unique needs, your family’s insurance coverage, and facility credentials and locations.

No matter what level of care you seek, the expert staff at Next Generation Village will create an individualized treatment plan to address the particular struggles your child is facing.

Know that you are not alone — we are here to guide you through this difficult time, and to provide as much support as you need. We invite you to call us to speak with a compassionate addiction specialist to discuss your family’s situation. There are no fees or obligations associated with calling, just help. Take the first step towards bringing your child back to health — get in touch.

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.


  • "Alcohol and Dopamine." HAMS: Harm Reduction for Alcohol, The HAMS Harm Reduction Network, 2012,
  • "Drug Use Changes the Brain Over Time." Learn.Genetics, Learn.Genetics: Genetic Science Learning Center, Accessed 13 Dec. 2016.
  • "Drugs and the Brain." National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institutes of Health, July 2014, Accessed 13 Dec. 2016.
  • "The Effects of Drugs and Alcohol on the Adolescent Brain." Science and Management of Addictions, Accessed 13 Dec. 2016.
  • "How Drugs Affect Teenage Brains: A Parent's Guide." Teen Rehab Center,, 19 Sept. 2016, Accessed 13 Dec. 2016.
  • "The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction." National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, 2011, Accessed 13 Dec. 2016.

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