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Drug Use and Biological Development in Adolescents

The adolescent period refers to a series of neurobiological changes that take place in people as they transition from childhood to adulthood. The age bracket of children undergoing this phase of life is considered to be between 11 and 19 years. According to Gulley and Juraska (2013), the nervous system of an adolescent is in a labile state, which makes responsive and flexible to many activities. The use of drugs, such as alcohol and psychostimulants, is common at this stage. The National Institute on Drug Abuse asserts that the brain undergoes constant development among individuals aged 1 to 30 years and continues until they assume active and independent roles in society. The prefrontal cortex is an area that undergoes significant changes during the adolescent stage and is responsible for decision-making, planning, and prevention of undesirable behavior. Drug use at this age can be accentuated by hypersensitivity of the limbic system to activities that involve taking risks.

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Exposure to environmental factors such as peer pressure and adventurous behavior determine how a developing brain handles loose DNA or chromatin, which is responsible for gene expression. This characteristic makes adolescents become susceptible to the use of many drugs such as cocaine, bhang, alcohol, and even prescribed drugs such as Adderall (Hiller-Sturmhöfel & Swartzwelder 2004). The National Institute on Drug Abuse reiterates that intake of drugs interferes with the body’s innate ability to respond to signals by increasing the level of dopamine, which brings about a rewarding feeling of risk-taking (n.d.). Hiller-Sturmhöfel and Swartzwelder (2004) assert that drug abuse among teenagers has redundant effects on the structural and functional growth of the brain. Various studies have also indicated that the adolescent brain is more sensitive to alcohol as compared to that of an adult. According to Winters, Tanner-Smith, Bresani, and Meyers (2014), drug use affects brain functioning in areas such as maintenance of balance, motor coordination, and decision-making. For instance, alcohol has an amnestic agent that disrupts the brain’s ability to create new, lasting memories.

Winters and Arria (2011) posit that repeated exposure to drugs, such as alcohol, for a prolonged period shows dramatic brain damage in the prefrontal cortex region, which is essential for sound decision-making. It also has severe effects on the teens working memory and the basal brain, influencing the ability to learn (Partnership for Drug-Free Kids n.d.) A growing body of literature unveils that drugs such as nicotine, cannabis, and stimulants have severe effects on maturation during the adolescent stage, intensifying the chances of developing a substance use disorder (Winters & Arria 2011). This effect further leads to poor brain development due to the vulnerability of loose DNA to seek more pleasurable activities. Physical effects include declined health and forgetfulness among teenagers.

Novel scientific approaches have tried to demystify the vulnerability of adolescents to the use of drugs and other related “feel-good” behaviors. Numerous studies have suggested that brain growth during this stage undergoes neuro-development that may increase adventure and risk-taking. Although such traits have profound evolutionary significance, modern society prefers offering prolonged safety for their children until they pass the adolescent years. Risk-taking behaviors associated with teenagers may result in more harmful circumstances such as drug addiction, depression, and erroneous habits. There is still a gap in the field of adolescent substance abuse, and researchers need to put extra effort to address the issues of drug abuse among teens.


Gulley, Joshua M., and Janice M. Juraska. “The effects of abused drugs on adolescent development of corticolimbic circuitry and behavior.” Neuroscience 249 (2013): 3-20.

Hiller-Sturmhöfel, Susanne, and H. Scott Swartzwelder. “Alcohol’s effects on the adolescent brain: what can be learned from animal models.” Alcohol Research & Health 28, no. 4 (2004): 213.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). “Principles of substance abuse prevention for early childhood.” NIH. 2020. Web.

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Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (n.d). “Brain development, teen behavior, and preventing drug use.” Drug-Free. 2020. Web.

Winters, Ken C., and Amelia Arria. “Adolescent brain development and drugs.” The prevention researcher 18, no. 2 (2011): 21.

Winters, Ken C., Emily E. Tanner-Smith, Elena Bresciani, and Kathleen Meyers. “Current advances in the treatment of adolescent drug use.” Adolescent health, medicine and therapeutics 5 (2014): 199.

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