Article Shows How Adolescent Brain Development Leads to Risky Behavior in Use of Drugs and Alcohol by Youth and Provides Guidance for Prevention and Treatment Programs

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The way the brain develops during adolescence may lead to risky behavior by young people, including their decisions to use alcohol and other drugs. Knowledge gained from adolescent development research can be used to optimize effectiveness of drug and alcohol prevention and treatment programs for youth. In a free article in The Prevention Researcher, the quarterly journal focused on successful adolescent development, Ken Winters, Ph.D. and Amelia Arria, Ph.D describe how adolescent brain development is a useful framework for understanding adolescent drug use and abuse, how drugs affect brain development, and use of this knowledge in prevention and treatment efforts.

Brain Scans for Adolescent Brain Development Study

... the earlier the onset of drug use, the greater the likelihood that a person will develop a drug problem.

“Research on adolescent brain development shows that the way the brain develops in adolescence may explain why young people take risks with use of drugs and alcohol,” says Steven Ungerleider, PhD., founding editor of The Prevention Researcher. “Understandings gained from adolescent brain development research should assist professionals working with youth in their substance abuse prevention and intervention efforts.”

In their article published in The Prevention Researcher, Professor Ken C. Winters, Ph.D., and Amelia M. Arria, Ph.D., Principal Investigator of the College Life Study, provide a framework for understanding adolescent drug use and abuse by looking at how brain development leads to risky behavior, how drugs affect brain development, and how to use this knowledge in prevention and intervention efforts with young people.

“New scientific discoveries,” say Winters and Arria, “have put a much different perspective on our understanding of adolescent behavior. Research now suggests that the human brain is still maturing during the adolescent years and this neuro-development may promote risk-taking and novelty seeking.”

The researchers note that “several converging lines of evidence indicate that age is a risk factor that is associated with the onset of drug use during adolescence and young adulthood. Adolescence is a developmental period associated with the highest risk for developing a substance use disorder. Young people report higher rates of alcohol and marijuana abuse or dependence disorders compared to older age groups.” Related findings show that “the earlier the onset of drug use, the greater the likelihood that a person will develop a drug problem.”

In addition, the researchers found “several lines of evidence suggesting that adolescents are uniquely susceptible to the short- and long-term effects of drugs. Early drug use may alter brain maturation, contribute to lasting cognitive impairment of certain functions, and significantly increase short- and long-term susceptibility for developing a substance use disorder. This body of science sharpens the urgency for prevention programs to promote a drug-free lifestyle and for drug-abusing youth to receive treatment earlier than later.”

Winters and Arria maintain that “to simply educate youth about the dangers of risk-taking is a no-win struggle against biological processes. Teenagers need to be taught more refined decision-making skills to assist their “brake systems” to take control in the face of emotional and arousing situations, and when peers are exerting a strong influence. In this light, we favor a focus on several teen-brain approaches for both prevention and treatment program:

1) teach youth about how their brain is developing (for a listing of resources, go to;
2) encourage youth to engage in safe risk-taking, preferably with adult supervision and that engages the youth in personal growth rather than simply to satisfy the need arousal; and
3) promote a lifestyle that supports healthy brain development.”

In the conclusion of their article, Winters and Arria say that “an appreciation of adolescent brain development by parents, prevention specialists and treatment providers can inform responses to adolescent behavior, including drug use. We favor teen brain-friendly programs that focus on teaching decision-making skills to help adolescents face peer influences and situations that elicit emotions and arousal. This emerging science reinforces the importance of active parental involvement during adolescence and young adulthood, and the need to particularly focus on teaching and supporting decision-making skills for the teenager.”

For a copy of the complete article on “Adolescent Brain Development and Drugs”, link directly to The Prevention Researcher or

About The Prevention Researcher

Founded in 1994, The Prevention Researcher is published by the non-profit, Integrated Research Services in Eugene, Oregon. The quarterly journal focuses on successful adolescent development and serves professionals who work with young people in a variety of organizational settings.

Each issue of The Prevention Researcher covers a single topic, presenting the latest adolescent behavioral research and findings on significant issues facing today’s youth. The journal provides information about programs that create supportive environments for youth, strategies for preventing problems affecting adolescents, and resources that help youth-serving professionals.

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Todd Peterson
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