How Drugs Affect Cognitive Development in Teenagers

Drugs always affect cognitive development, but adolescence is a more vulnerable stage because the brain is in full development. How do drugs affect teenagers?
How Drugs Affect Cognitive Development in Teenagers
Mara Amor López

Written and verified by the psychologist Mara Amor López.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

Drugs affect cognitive development and are increasingly present in our society. Statistics show an increase in consumption among teenagers and a decrease of the perception of the risks involved.

Nowadays, the consumption of certain types of drugs, such as cannabis, is quite permissive. The use of substances is taking place at younger and younger ages, and this causes irreparable damage to the developing brain.

Drug abuse causes irreversible damage and also increases the risk of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and psychosis. Do you want to know how drugs affect the cognitive development of teenagers? Read on.

What are drugs?

According to the WHO (World Health Organization), drugs are considered “any substance with effects on the central nervous system, capable of generating abuse and leading to a process of psychological or physical dependence or both at the same time.”

Risk factors consumption: how drugs affect cognitive development

  • Accessibility and availability of drugs in the environment. The easier the access to drugs, the more consumption there is.
  • Society’s attitude towards drugs. Social acceptance due to a false belief that they’re harmless, which doesn’t coincide with reality.
How Drugs Affect Cognitive Development in Teenagers
  • Drug use by parents.
  • Adolescence. Experiencing new things, peer pressure… All this makes adolescence a risk factor for drug use.
  • Economic availability, the absence of regulations.

Consequences of drug consumption

Learning: concentration problems are very frequent and serious. Therefore, students don’t perform well in their studies.

Social-family: the problems generated by the drug on the control of impulses often lead to conflicts both within and outside the family, which leads to an increasingly intense and prolonged social isolation.

Personal-emotional: drugs have an effect on mood and anxiety. This, together with the two previous points, makes it difficult to get out of this vicious circle.

How drugs affect cognitive development

Drugs act on the central nervous system, intensifying or inhibiting neurotransmission mechanisms. They also have effects on the brain’s reward circuits, which is why their consumption provides pleasure and decreases activity in other circuits of behavioral control.

In addition, some drugs have a chemical composition similar to certain substances generated by our brain. The difference is that the substances generated by us have the effect of positive stimulus, while these drugs bring about difficulties in self-control and an excess of activity.

Therefore, this abnormal functioning causes an imbalance of the brain functions. It alters behavior and causes consumers to have inappropriate behaviors. At early ages, such as adolescence, the consumption of these substances causes negative changes in the brain structures and even lesions that can leave irreparable sequelae.

Which areas of the brain suffer the most?

The basal ganglia

They’re related to the brain’s motivation and reward mechanisms. As drugs alter the activity of this system, they generate a feeling of well-being when consuming them, and of absence when the effect wears off. So, this triggers the risk of dependence.

How Drugs Affect Cognitive Development in Teenagers

How drugs affect cognitive development: the prefrontal region

This area is in charge of our capacity of self-control, organization and planning. It also regulates executive functions, and is the last brain region to develop. For this reason, it’s one of the most sensitive in teenagers and its alteration is related to substance addiction.

The amygdala

This structure is related to the regulation of stress, irritability, fear and anxiety. The greater the consumption, the more sensitive it becomes, so the withdrawal effect worsens.

As you can see, drugs affect cognitive development in all cases. However, in adolescence, the damage can be more serious and leave irreversible sequelae. For this reason, prevention from an early age is advisable. As parents, we should talk to our children about this issue so that they know first-hand the consequences of drug consumption.

Finally, we must make sure we provide our children with a good emotional education in order to prevent them from falling into this habit that is so harmful to their health.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.