Finding ways to satisfy needs and desires is part of life. It’s one of the many skills being fine-tuned during the teen years. When a teen takes drugs in order to feel good, it interferes with the body’s natural ability to do so. Here’s how drugs affect the brain:
The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells. Nerves control everything from when the heart beats to what your teen feels, thinks and does. They do this by sending electrical signals throughout the body. The signals get passed from nerve to nerve by chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
For example, some of the signals that neurotransmitters send cause a feeling of satisfaction or pleasure. These natural rewards are the body’s way of making sure we look for more of what makes us feel good. (For instance, when we eat something tasty, neurotransmitters tell us we feel good. Seeking more of this pleasure helps to ensure we don’t starve.) The main neurotransmitter of the “feel-good” message is called dopamine.
Drugs overload the body with dopamine — in other words, they cause the reward system to send too many “feel-good” signals. In response, the body’s brain systems try to right the balance by letting fewer of the “feel-good” signals through. As time goes on, the body needs more of the drug to feel the same high as before. This effect is known as tolerance, and it can be especially dangerous in the cases of drugs like heroin and cocaine.
The effects of drugs on the brain don’t just end when the drug wears off. When a person stops taking a drug, dopamine levels remain low for some time. He or she may feel down, or flat, and unable to feel regular pleasures in life. The brain will eventually restore the dopamine balance by itself, but it takes time — anywhere from hours, to days, or even months, depending on the drug, the length and amount of use, and the person.
Because teenagers have an over-active impulse to seek pleasure and less ability to consider the consequences, they are especially vulnerable when it comes to the temptations of drugs and alcohol. And because the internal reward systems are still being developed, a teen’s ability to bounce back to normal after using drugs may be compromised due to how drugs affect the brain.