Why is drug use during adolescence more likely to lead to addiction?

Howard J. Shaffer, PhD
Addiction Medicine
Experimenting with drugs early in life might be more likely to lead to addiction than later experimentation because the adolescent brain is still developing. Research reveals that our brains aren't fully developed until about age 25. The immature adolescent brain has less ability to put the brakes on risky behaviors and impulses; restraint comes with both biological and behavioral maturity.

Some researchers speculate that adolescents are more vulnerable to addiction because the nucleus accumbens—the pleasure center of the brain—matures before the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and executive decision-making. In other words, teenagers' capacity for pleasure reaches adult proportions well before their capacity for sound decision making does.

The same incomplete neural development that puts adolescents at increased risk for using psychoactive substances also makes them more vulnerable to their damaging effects. That's because psychoactive substances can themselves impede or redirect the changes that normally transform the adolescent brain to that of a mature adult. Binge drinking (heavy bouts of drinking interspersed with periods of abstinence) during adolescence, for example, can permanently damage the prefrontal cortex—the executive center of the brain that regulates behavior. And having a faulty executive center can, in turn, promote addiction. This might explain why adolescents who begin drinking very young are so much more likely to become dependent on alcohol and other drugs.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.