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It is something that has been talked about for years, but not until solid research has emerged have people truly believed it: some brains, especially teen brains, are more susceptible to addiction. It has to do with brain chemistry and brain synapses and connections, as well as teens’ stages of development and maturity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • 6 percent of high school students say they have tried marijuana
  • 4 percent of high school students have used alcohol
  • 14 percent of high school students say they’ve misused prescription opioids to get high

Teens Possess a Better Ability to Learn

Among those who try drugs and alcohol, teens represent one of the groups that are at higher risk for developing an addiction. Researchers have found that the human brain is not fully mature until the age of 30. This means teens’ brains are constantly building pathways and circuits that store memories, develop skills, and create reward systems. Because of this, teens’ brains are able to learn much faster than adults and remember skills and rewards more easily.

When it comes to the effects of drugs and alcohol on the body, this becomes a problem. Teen brains quickly become trained to accept the reward pathway of a high related to substance use, and they tend to crave more and more of the substance faster than an adult normally would.

“Instead of being exposed to a practice set of math problems or practicing a golf swing, they’re exposing their brain repeatedly to a substance,” Dr. Frances Jensen, chair of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine said in an interview. “Their brains learn to accept that substance. That’s what addiction is. It’s creating a learned pathway in the reward system of your brain.”

Teens have a Propensity for Impulsiveness 

Another reason teens are more susceptible to addiction is that since their brains are still developing, the part of the brain that is in charge of making sound decisions is not fully mature yet. The frontal lobe in teenagers, which is the area that governs emotions and helps make decisions, is not fully insulated with myelin until the age of 30. Until then, individuals are plagued with impulse control problems, not being able to see the consequences of their actions, and giving in to peer pressure more easily, all of which become problems when faced with drugs or alcohol.

“That plays into getting addicted in the first place,” Jensen said. “There’s this increased propensity to take risks and try substances – despite the fact that you might know it’s really bad for you.”

Teen Brains are Better at Recovery

However, the fact that teen brains are still developing is actually good news when it comes to addiction treatment. Teens, because they are quick learners, can more easily reprogram their brain if given the right kind of help. A good treatment program will teach skills that help teens stand up to peer pressure, manage their impulsiveness, and think about consequences when making decisions.

“Teens are really good learners at this age. 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. If you can get them into rehab, you have better results in rehab,” Jensen said. “You can undo the circuit. You still have a better ability to remold the circuit – if you can capture it.”

Because of the difference between teen and adult brains, it is important to modify teen programming to specifically meet the needs of these young adults. Teens generally do better in programs where they can interact with peers and build positive relationships, and programs that teach impulse control are important.

To prevent teen substance abuse and addiction, it is important for schools, parents, and community organizations to teach teens about the dangers and consequences of substance abuse, as well as help them develop real-world skills to avoid drug and alcohol use in the first place. Role-playing activities in addition to education will help teens better prepare for the temptations of peer pressure.

Education and prevention programs do work in teens. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future Survey, last year, use of many substances reached the lowest levels since the survey’s inception and held steady in 2017, or in some cases, dropped even more.

“Teens are learning machines,” Jensen said. “We, as adults, have our frontal lobes attached. We should be giving them more frontal lobe assists, if you will, and talking through these issues with teenagers and young adults.”