What’s Really Causing Teens to Abuse Drugs and Alcohol?

Edited by Paul Alexander

Last updated November 21, 2014

It doesn’t come as a surprise to hear that teenagers, despite the education that has been put forward through the media and in schools, are still experimenting with both drugs and alcohol. This experimentation is often chalked up to be because of peer pressure or problems at school and/or at home. However, a new study shows that there might be more to teenage drug and alcohol experimentation habits.

Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center have conducted one primary study to determine what puts teens at risk for substance abuse. The study, a part of the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Adolescent Development Study, was broken down into four smaller studies that focused on specific parts of the brain.

The Four Studies

Study number one examined the connectivity in the brain’s executive control center (where emotions, impulsivity and self-control live) in a group of selected teenagers. A definitive answer was not exactly uncovered as a result of the study, but the numerous brain scans suggested that “impaired function” of the executive control center lends itself to the development of substance abuse in individuals at an earlier age. They also showed that slow or abnormal formation of the prefrontal cortex could also contribute to earlier patterns of substance abuse.

In study number two, many different parts of the brain were looked at as they worked together. The researcher in charge viewed levels of impulsivity in between the executive control center, the prefrontal cortex, and the insular cortex. What was uncovered was that those teenagers who had less connectivity between these parts of the brain were at higher risk for being impulsive, which could lead to earlier use of drug and/or alcohol.

The third study focused on teenagers sugar intake and their impulsiveness to indulge in sweet foods. Many studies show that those who have a stronger sweet tooth are more likely to want instant gratification in their lives, making them more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. This third study proved those studies to be true, as those teens that craved and consumed more sugar were found to be higher risk for substance abuse.

The fourth and last study looked at the connection between DHA intake and impulsivity. What was found was that those teens who were consuming less DHA were having more problems with brain function, as their brains have not developed as strong or as quickly as others their age who had a healthy intake of DHA. These brain function problems put these teenagers at risk for being more impulsive and irresponsible.

What You Can Do

If you are a parent, there are still a number of things you can do even though you might feel a sense of discouragement. Regardless of if your child is struggling with certain brain function difficulties, you can combat their likelihood of abusing drugs and alcohol by talking about preventative methods (including learning how to say “no” to peers). You can also have them work with a therapist and/or a psychiatrist to help them cope with psychological issues they might be having that could predispose them to substance abuse.

Article Reviewed by Paul Alexander

Paul AlexanderPaul Alexander is the founder and CEO of Northbound Treatment. He received his Certified Addiction Treatment Specialist training at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, CA, and was awarded Outstanding Alumni Service Award in 2002. Paul holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminology, Law and Society, Summa Cum Laude, from University of California, Irvine, and a Juris Doctorate degree from Loyola Law School of Los Angeles. He believes wholeheartedly in transformational leadership, organizational health and effective, fully integrated substance use disorder treatment.