Is the Teenage Brain Wired for Addiction?

Is the Teenage Brain Wired for Addiction?

Is the Teenage Brain Wired for Addiction?

Is the Teenage Brain Wired for Addiction?Research has shown that if you start drinking before the age of 14, there is a 40 percent chance you will become dependent on alcohol, compared to a 10 percent chance for those who start at age 20 or later. The same general result also holds for other substances such as cocaine and marijuana. This puts the importance of the teenage years into context when it comes to addiction—it’s a critical period during which a step in the wrong direction could have catastrophic consequences throughout life.

The main question is: why do teens seem more susceptible to addiction than adults? The answer lies in neurology; the structural changes taking place (and due to take place) in the teen brain effectively put them at greater risk for addiction. Through a biological quirk, you could argue that the teenage brain is literally wired for addiction.

The Developing Brain

The brain grows and changes throughout early life, not reaching a stage of maturity until one reaches the 20s. During all the periods of change, the teenage years are among the most critical because they represent a journey toward adulthood, ditching extraneous “gray matter” and building up core areas of functioning at different rates. Why exactly the gray matter—the thin, outer layer of the brain responsible for things like higher thought and memory—decreases during adolescence isn’t definitively known, but the prevailing theory is that this happens in order to make the brain more efficient. Areas that are used are maintained while those that aren’t exercised are ditched.

The key point when it comes to the increased risk of addiction for adolescents is that some of the core areas of functioning reach maturity before the more nuanced areas. This effectively means that the primitive networks—like the areas controlling “reward” and emotional processing—are functioning at adult levels, whereas the locations associated with things like forward planning and impulse control (such as the prefrontal cortex) remain underdeveloped.

For behavior, this fully developed impulsive area of the brain but inadequate self-control network means that new and potentially rewarding activities are engaged in with little second thought. This works as a partial explanation as to why, when the body is approaching its prime physical condition, around six times as many deaths from injury occur in 15- to 19-year-olds as in 10- to 14-year-olds. The risk-taking areas are effectively running the show.

Additionally, teens respond to emotional stimuli more intensely than both adults and young children. This is thought to be caused by neurological changes taking place during adolescence and to involve the brain’s reward system, with the consequence being that more brain regions are activated during responses to emotional stimuli. Hormonal changes taking place simultaneously also make teens more susceptible to the effects of stress, which can obviously have notable impacts on behavior.

Other Factors

Other changes taking place could also impact a teen’s risk of addiction, including the assumed neurological changes that lead to the tendency for teens to stay up late at night. The impact of this initially appears like it would be negligible, but in reality the pressure to wake up early for school or college means that sleep deprivation is quite common. This can have many consequences, including depression and irritability, and, according to research, it may also further increase impulsive behavior. The adolescent brain is also an intellectual match for the adult brain, but possesses more capacity for learning than at any other time.

How This Impacts on Addiction Risk

The most relevant factor of the developing adolescent brain on addiction risk appears to be the mixture of increased impulsivity and the underdevelopment of the forward planning areas. Research has shown that adolescents who score highly on an impulsivity test are more likely to develop a problem with alcoholism later in life. This stands to reason, because impulsive behavior such as drinking can appear to have benefits (e.g., to reduce stress and help fit in with peers) and the underdeveloped forward planning areas prevent the potential risks from assuming significance.

Other relevant factors include the increased stress experienced by teens, which has long been known to contribute to addiction risk. Similarly, depression is a big risk factor for addiction, and this could result from either sleep deprivation or the heightened responses to emotional stimuli. When all of the potential contributing factors are considered, it’s clear that there are several hair-triggers built into the teen brain that could easily lead to addiction.


Teens may be at an increased risk of addiction for several neurological and physical reasons, but this doesn’t mean that they are condemned to drug or alcohol abuse. It’s worth noting that the majority of teens—like the majority of adults—do not develop a problem. However, if your teen is going to develop a problem, there is a fair chance that this will take root during this critical period. You can’t be looming over his or her shoulder at all times, but as a parent, it’s worth paying some extra attention to warning signs during adolescence.

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