Drug Abuse and Addiction

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Drug Abuse in Teenagers

One of the brain areas still maturing during adolescence is the prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain that enables us to assess situations, make sound decisions, and keep our emotions and desires under control. The fact that this critical part of an adolescent's brain is still a work-in-progress puts them at increased risk for poor decisions (such as trying drugs or continued abuse). Thus, introducing drugs while the brain is still developing may have profound and long-lasting consequences.

Risk of drug abuse increases greatly during times of transition, such as changing schools, moving, or divorce. If we can prevent drug abuse, we can prevent drug addiction. In early adolescence, when children advance from elementary through middle school, they face new and challenging social and academic situations. Often during this period, children are exposed to abusable substances such as cigarettes and alcohol for the first time. When they enter high school, teens may encounter greater availability of drugs, drug abuse by older teens, and social activities where drugs are used.

At the same time, many behaviors that are a normal aspect of their development, such as the desire to do something new or risky, may increase teen tendencies to experiment with drugs. Some teens may give in to the urging of drug-abusing friends to share the experience with them. Others may think that taking drugs (such as steroids) will improve their appearance or their athletic performance or that abusing substances such as alcohol or Ecstasy (MDMA) will ease their anxiety in social situations.

Teens' still-developing judgment and decision making skills may limit their ability to assess risks accurately and make sound decisions about using drugs. Drug and alcohol abuse can disrupt brain function in areas critical to motivation, memory, learning, judgment, and behavior control. So, it is not surprising that teens who abuse alcohol and other drugs often have family and school problems, poor academic performance, health-related problems (including mental health), and involvement with the juvenile justice system.

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