Young Adults, Brain Function, and Drug Abuse

brain 3168269 640

brain 3168269 640

Common knowledge tells us that young adults are more at risk for drug abuse problems than older adults are. And this makes sense too. Young adults are more impulsive, more reckless, less considerate of long-term, future outcomes of their actions, and more likely to make a mistake or poor decision in the heat of the moment than older adults are. From a more biological perspective, young adults have immense neurological development and growth in brain activity occurring through their teen years and even into their early twenties. All of these factors, changes, and circumstances make for a perfect storm if drug use or alcoholism is thrown into the mix.

All of the above and then some is why young adults are most at risk when it comes to drug and alcohol abuse issues. They are most at risk for not only abusing substances (meaning they are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol than older adults are) but they are also more likely to get hurt or even die from drug use and alcohol misuse. And, as if to only make matters worse, new information is suggesting that young adults actually suffer serious brain impairment from consistent drug use or alcohol misuse, experiencing changes to their brains that can be permanent.

Young Adults, Brains, and Drugs

Young people and drugs were not meant to mix. As a young person is growing, their brain function and cognitive abilities are also growing with them. Even after their bodies have achieved full maturity, a young adult’s brain and neurological function will still continue to develop. However, when a young person abuses drugs over a consistent period of time, this can cause an irreparable, irreversible stunt to their cognitive and mental development.

This is why adult addicts, in their late twenties, their thirties, and their forties, who started abusing drugs and alcohol at a young age, often seem to act with an immaturity and a foolishness that is not fitting of their age. When a person begins drug use, if they take on this derisive habit at a young age, they risk their cognitive development being halted at whatever age they began the habit. An alcoholic age thirty-five who started drinking in his teen years will often appear to think, act, respond, and process information at a much younger age.

This manifestation is simply yet another unpleasant side effect of continued drug use. This phenomenon contributes to the degradation and the ongoing backward slide that any addict experiences. An addict who appears to be thirty or forty yet acts like they are twenty is going to have it tough in society.

A Glance at the Biology Behind Addiction

We can touch briefly on the science behind this and bring some of the terminologies to light. The University of Pittsburgh did extensive research on the subject of brain function and addiction. The study was meant to derive two things, one was if brain function could be mapped as something that predisposed a person to drug abuse, and what happened to brain function after a person began abusing drugs and alcohol.

The study project talked a lot about “Neurobehavioral Disinhibition” which is the ability to control response impulses to immediate stimulus. It is basically the scientific term for self-control and self-determination. According to Rebecca Landes McNamee, the assistant research professor of radiology and bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh:

  • “We found that individuals who exhibit a high amount of ND (that is, do not have a good ability to manage their impulsive responses) have less brain activity in the frontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for ECF, during a task. In other words, the regions of the brain responsible for these inhibitory processes engaged less energy in individuals with higher ND scores than those with lower ND scores.”

She concluded by saying that:

  • “Teachers, caregivers, and other individuals should understand that each adolescent matures at a different rate; they do not always respond like adults, because their brains are not at the same level of functioning as an adult. Responses and behaviors related to a certain situation are less easy for some adolescents to manage than others.”

What we can understand from this research is that brain function in young adults and substance abuse in young adults is intricately linked. These findings simply add to the urgency of preventing young people from abusing drugs and alcohol, because there is obviously a lot at stake here.

Preventing Drug Abuse in Young People

The key behind preventing young adults from essentially ruining their futures with drug abuse lies in educating them. Education on the real risks and the dangers of drug abuse and alcohol misuse is crucial. The vast majority of young adults who do misuse drugs and alcohol admit that they did not know of the risks attendant with their habit and just what they were getting themselves into at the time. Most young people admit that they would have been less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol had they known just what was involved.

The problem is, most young people are peer pressured into drug use or alcohol misuse by people who are already engaged in these activities. That or young people are struggling with issues and difficulties that they do not know how to cope with on their own. They are faced with a life crisis of some kind and, in an effort to cope with it, they turn to drugs and alcohol without knowing of the risks behind such substances.

On the other hand, if young people knew about the risks attendant with drug abuse, they would be far less likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol. It’s about four-hundred percent less likely in fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.


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