What’s the Difference Between the Teen and Adult Brain When it Comes to Alcohol and Other Drug Use?
Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation
Brain cells, called neurons, are generally covered and protected with a fatty substance called myelin. This myelin acts like an insulator, helping brain messages to travel from neuron to neuron, cell to cell, like electricity flowing through a series of telephone wires.
While the neurons in an adult brain are well myelinated, and well protected, the maturing neurons in a teen brain have more “myelination” to undergo.
Since teen brains are “in progress” in this way, teen brain cells send “louder” messages to one another than do adult brain cells, in much the same way that an identical song is broadcast much less attractively through a cheap speaker than it is through a highly-sophisticated sound system.
Through these more intense, less refined brain messages back and forth, teens actually experience more intense sensations of pleasure from enjoyable activities than do adults. They also experience negative emotions—like anxiety, stress, and depression—more “loudly.” This means that teens may crave the alleviation of negative emotions more urgently than adults, because these emotions are truly felt more deeply.
It also means that when teens engage in risky behaviors like alcohol and other drug use, the reward pathway of the teen brain is highly sensitive to substances’ effects.
Learn more about the Effects of Drugs on the Teen Brain at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.
Talking to Your Kids
Starting the Discussion About Drug and Alcohol Use with Your Kids
Parents face a tough dilemma about substance use: we may want our children to abstain from alcohol and drug use but what do we do if they are not? Besides the effects of substance use on the developing brain, teens using substances may face very serious consequences.