This Really Is Not Your (or Your Teen’s) Brain on Drugs

By Kara McLaughlin

Remember that old TV commercial, “This is your brain. (cue egg)  This is your brain on drugs. (cue frying egg in pan) Any questions?”   It was very dramatic, but it wasn’t very effective in preventing drug use.  We also now know the message is not a good analogy. A better analogy, particularly for the adolescent brain, is “This is your brain. (cue computer) This is your brain on drugs. (cue scrambled keys on the keyboard) What are you programming?”

Previously, scientists were left with only autopsies and head injuries to study the human brain which led them to believe it completed development by age 9. Modern technologies, like MRIs have allowed researchers to better understand how the brain develops and that it does not finish “programming” until the mid to late 20’s! 

One phrase that explains this programming is “use it or lose it.” A human is born with billions of neurons (brain cells) and adolescence is a major time for what scientists call “pruning.” Theses neurons are firing rapidly, explaining seemingly erratic behaviors. Actions that are repeated form into neuro-pathways while things that are done less frequently are pruned out. Does your teen love junk food and video games? Does your teen love playing soccer and eating vegetables? The more an adolescent does something the more their brain is wiring or programming itself to do those things. We often hear this type of behavior called creating habits. 

Creating good habits equates to healthy brain programming. When teens have healthy supportive adult relationships that help set boundaries they are nurturing healthy habits, for example, reading, sleeping 8-9 hours a night and waiting to drink alcohol. When they do not have the benefit of healthy, supportive adult relationships they may be nurturing unhealthy neuro-pathways like drinking several energy drinks a day, playing video games for long hours daily, or smoking cigarettes.

Health professionals call addiction a disease of adolescence when teens take part in activities like using alcohol and drugs while the brain is actively programming, these habits are neurologically reinforced. Research shows that when teens start drinking alcohol before the age of 15 they at a 45% greater risk of forming an addiction to alcohol than those who wait until 21.

One of the last parts of the brain to complete, usually in the mid to late 20’s, is the prefrontal cortex. Responsible for the reasoning, planning, impulse control and judgment, the prefrontal cortex can be considered the brain’s brakes. This confirms what we already knew: teenagers and young adults are adventure seekers with little impulse control. Teen brains are go, go, go with minimal braking. Often parents find themselves saying, “What were you thinking?!” When a more effective response might be, “What happened and what will you do differently next time?”

Young people need us to nurture the healthy habits, aka neuro-pathways, which will help them become happy, healthy adults.  Research tells that one supportive adult can make all the difference in the life of a child.  In reality the analogy of an egg or a computer are inadequate. The life of a child is infinitely more precious.

[This article was originally published in the 2015/16 Franklin County Guide for Parents, an advertising supplement to the Greenfield Recorder and the Athol Daily News]