Teens’ tendency to seek risks and novel experiences also increases the likelihood that they may
experiment with alcohol and drugs. Alcohol, drugs, and tobacco can cause damage to the
adolescent brain. Most addictive substances, including alcohol, cocaine, heroin, amphetamines,
and nicotine, increase the level of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, in the brain.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit important information between brain
cells. Increased levels of dopamine in the reward centers of the brain cause a sense of well-
Approximately one-fourth of high school students are considered binge drinkers (defined as
consuming five or more drinks in a row within a couple of hours). Research on the impact of
alcohol on the adolescent brain has led to some startling discoveries:
1. Teens are more likely to blackout (be conscious but unable to remember) than to
pass out. In blackout, teens may continue to drink, drive, use drugs, and/or engage in
other risky behaviors, yet have no memory of what they did.
2. Compared to adults, teens are less likely to succumb to the sedative effects of alcohol.
Impairment of their motor coordination is delayed. Consequently, adolescent
drinkers are less sensitive than adults to these two key warning signs of inebriation.
3. The hippocampus, which has an important role in forming new memories, is smaller in
adolescents who are heavy drinkers than in other teens. Young drinkers have more
learning problems as well as long-term memory impairment when compared to teens
who don’t drink.
4. Drugs, such as ecstasy and meth, cause imbalance in brain chemicals and can lead to
problems with impulse control and depression. The nicotine in tobacco also causes
chemical imbalance and problems with connections in the brain.
5. Teens are more prone to addiction than are adults. The younger teens are when they
start using an addictive substance, the more quickly they become addicted. Preventing
or delaying a teen’s exposure to addictive substances, such as tobacco, alcohol, and
drugs, including prescription drugs, is a win-win situation. The teen’s developing brain is
less likely to be harmed and the teen is less likely to become addicted.
Teachers, healthcare providers, and youth serving professionals can help teens to avoid the
harmful effects of addictive substances:
- • Talk with teens about the vulnerability of the developing adolescent brain to neurotoxins
- (alcohol, tobacco and drugs). Teachers can add a unit to health or science classes.
- Healthcare providers can offer anticipatory guidance to teens and their parents.
- • Be aware that teens who are experiencing trauma, such as living in a violent household or
- being in an abusive dating relationship, are more likely than other teens to look for ways
- to self-medicate. Health care providers should routinely screen for substance use and
- should be familiar with community substance abuse treatment services that also deal with
- trauma-related addiction.
- • Support and advocate for evidence-based substance abuse prevention programs in
Go to registries such as the National Registry on Evidence-based Practices (www.modelprograms.samhsa.gov) to learn more about substance abuse prevention programs for youth. A number of cost-effective programs exist that can be integrated into health, physical education, and other classes and that have demonstrated significant reductions in the number of youth who start using substances early.