Point of No Return: the Effect of Addiction on the Developing Brain


When discussing how to best treat drug addiction in the US, the bulk of the conversation tends to lean toward, “How do we get addicts clean?” rather than debating as to how addiction can be prevented in the first place. It seems this is a crucial talking point, but the truth is that preventing drug addiction from taking root in the first place can be unpredictable, and sometimes impossible in certain situations. This is important to note as that vast majority of those who develop problems with substance abuse do so during the most sensitive period of emotional, physical, and mental development: adolescence. Adolescence marks the transitionary period between childhood and adulthood and is prone to being receptive to all manner of influences, especially drug and alcohol abuse. The teenage years are some of the most impactful moments in a person’s life and by introducing drugs at this impressionable age, a host of negative effects take root which compromises overall development and set us down the long painful road of addiction.


It is important to understand exactly what is going on during this transitionary period to better understand why drug use during this time is so impactful. Adolescence in a period of rapid change in neurodevelopment. New neuro pathways begin to rapidly develop, causing tremendous growth in intelligence, cognition, awareness, and other higher brain functions. Hormone production also skyrockets, and with it the production of a wealth of physiological changes that affect physical and sexual development. The most sensitive but immeasurable area of change is emotional change. These are formative years in a person’s life where one begins to not only have a greater understanding of the world, but also a greater understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. This is the time of maturation when we develop a greater sense of responsibility for our future and for the impact our decisions make. We begin to conceptualize our value system, our moral compass, our hopes for the future; we take the first steps into becoming the person we are going to be for the rest of our lives.


The human brain is arguably the single most sophisticated object in existence. Despite this, this sophistication has one serious drawback: it can be sabotaged. The human brain is capable of incredible things and is highly adaptable, but mistakes can be made which alter brain development for the worse. Drug addiction has long been shown to make profound changes in brain functions, chemistry, and neuroplasticity, setting us up for a host of complications that compromise our development and subsequently, our lives.

Even in adults, this change can be seen. Users of cocaine, alcohol, marijuana, and heroin have all been shown to have several major impacts on the brain, including:

  • Decreased gray matter: areas of the brain responsible for numerous cognitive function including decision making, conflict management, emotional response, reward appraisal, and impulsivity.
  • Reduced Synaptic Plasticity, or the brains “circuitry.” This affects the mesolimbic dopamine system, central to reward processing and thusly leads to addiction.
  • Damage to areas of the brain responsible for storing memories and maintaining focus.


The above-mentioned deterrents in brain development are worsened further when drugs are introduced during teenage years. A recent study by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that when drugs are taking between the ages of 12 and 18 years old, they are as much as 68% more likely to develop substance abuse disorder in comparison to those who first drink or experiment with drugs after the age of 21. In a recent experiment on rodents, it was shown that when the adolescent rodents were exposed to drugs in comparison to fully matured rodents, the adolescent rodents:

  • Found addictive drugs more rewarding than adults
  • Self-administer higher doses of some drugs
  • Experience less severe withdrawals

If these results are telling of anything, it is that not only are adolescents more likely to develop drug problems than adults, but they are also more likely to stay addicted longer. Because of the rapid physical development during this time, it is possible for teens to not experience many of the debilitation physical repercussions until much later. This is not a benefit, as it often causes teen-drug users to not believe they have a serious problem.

In addition to being more likely to develop substance abuse disorder, adolescents are more likely to experience a compounded effect of drug abuse, becoming more prone to developing:

  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Impaired cognition
  • Personality disorders
  • Stunted emotional growth
  • Depression and bipolar disorder


There is no shortage of reasons to not turn to drugs, yet the rates of drug and alcohol abuse continue to rise, especially in the 12-18-year-old age bracket, setting up a generation of addicts who will start down a difficult and painful path. The Face the Music Foundation believes that information is one of the greatest weapons in the fight against drug addiction. It is important that we speak openly and honestly about drugs and what they can do rather than hoping that not talking about them will solve the problem. This “out of sight, out of mind” mentality has never worked. Some of the things that have been shown to meaningfully reduce the risk of adolescent drug abuse include:

  • After school programs
  • More involved parenting
  • Access to information about drugs and alcohol
  • Cultivating rewarding hobbies; music, sports, art, so on

While drug and alcohol addiction are unlikely to disappear overnight, we can start to make an impact today. One thing that can be said with certainty is that preventing drug addiction before it starts is much easier and will save many more lives than trying to treat addiction itself. If we can be informed and make a decision that will keep the next generation of children out of harm’s way, then we will be off to an incredible start.

Face the Music with Us

Many never seek treatment for addiction because of the cost. Face the Music Foundation is looking to help as many people as possible take the financial worry out of addiction treatment so they don’t have to choose between their savings and their sobriety. We need your help to get it done.