March 18-24, 2024 is National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week.

The National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week® (NDAFW) is a NIDA health observance week for teens that aims to SHATTER THE MYTHS® about drug and alcohol use.  The objective is to share facts about drugs, alcohol, and addiction among the youth.

It’s important to know the difference between drug abuse and addiction.  Many teens experiment with drugs, but aren’t addicted.  However, those that abuse drugs (experimenting with drugs) have a greater risk of becoming addicted.

Did you know…

When a person uses drugs for a long time, the effects on the person’s brain can become permanent, even if they stop using drugs.

Think of your brain as a pile of cement - while cement is setting (developing), you can still make changes in it (like shaping or decorating it) that will stay there when it dries.  But once the cement hardens, you can’t make any more changes and you can’t get rid of the changes you’ve already made.

In a similar way when a teen uses drugs, they can make changes in a brain that’s still developing.  In a fully developed brain those changes “harden.”  Repeated drug use also can eventually lead to dramatic changes in neurons and brain circuits.

Addiction is sometimes compared to a learning process.  The brain learns to want and need the drug, it can be very hard to “un-learn” the behaviour of drug-taking.

Drug abuse is linked to Schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia and addiction or substance use disorder often co-occur.  In fact, an estimated 50% of individuals suffering from schizophrenia have a history of substance abuse.  People with schizophrenia often engage in substance abuse as a way to self-medicate or alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression.

Imbalances of certain chemicals in the brain such as glutamate, serotonin and dopamine are linked to schizophrenia.  These imbalances affect the way the brain reacts to stimuli.  Although substance abuse cannot cause schizophrenia, it can act as an environmental trigger.  Someone with existing risk factors for the disorder may develop an active case of schizophrenia after substance abuse.

Using drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines can also intensify schizophrenic symptoms and worsen their severity.

A person’s brain continues to develop until they’re about 25 years old.

Scientists used to think that people’s brains were fully developed by the age of 10.  However, now there’s evidence that shows that the brain isn’t fully developed until people are in their 20’s or even 30’s.

This means a teen’s brain is still developing and drugs including nicotine and alcohol could harm that development.  The last part of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe.  The frontal lobe manages both judgment and impulse control.  That is why teenagers and young adults are more likely to make risky decisions.

Researchers found that teens who use nicotine, alcohol and cannabis have two brain areas that are smaller than average when they become adults.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that teen drug use causes those brain areas to be smaller, other factors could also be involved.  But this connection (what scientists call a correlation) is worth knowing about and is being studied by scientists.

Researchers found that higher levels of alcohol, nicotine and cannabis use before age 19 correlated with significantly less “grey matter” in two brain areas at age 25.  Less grey matter in a brain area could mean it contains fewer nerve cells (neurons), that might reduce that brain area’s ability to function in a healthy way.

The amygdala that processes emotions was smaller in people who reported greater use of those substances at ages 12 to 15.  The pars opercularis, part of frontal lobe was smaller in people who reported greater use of the substances at ages 16 to 18.  The frontal lobe controls your ability to make decisions.

Why could these particular parts of the brain be smaller in teens who use more of certain drugs?  Researchers aren’t sure yet, but we do know that the teen brain matures in stages for example the amygdala matures earlier in brain development and the pars opercularis matures later.  This all suggests that as the brain matures in the teen years and it goes through stages, its development may affect or be affected by substance use.  We’ll learn more as the research continues.