the vulnerable teen brain

Beginning in the early teenage years and extending to the mid-20s, the human brain undergoes a period of great change. During this period many teens tend to take more risks, seek high pleasure activities, and exhibit poor judgement. These facts make teenagers at heightened risk for substance use.

Adapted from  Gogtay, et al., 2004

In these MRI images of the developing brain, areas of green, yellow, red, and blue are still undergoing significant development into the early 20s. Only the small areas of purple are fully mature.

Neuroscientist Frances Jensen, MD discusses how the biology of the teen brain presents a double-edged sword: teens are hard wired to learn but are more vulnerable to addiction.

The adolescent brain can be changed as a result of early substance use. Brain differences have been found between teens who use substances and their non-using peers. Deficits in brain functioning may continue after teens have stopped using.

Importantly teens who use drugs and alcohol are more likely to develop substance use disorders in adulthood. Nine in 10 adults with substance use disorders — or 90% — began smoking, drinking or using drugs before age 18.

Age of Substance Use Initiation Among Treatment Admissions Aged 18 to 30    Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014 .

Age of Substance Use Initiation Among Treatment Admissions Aged 18 to 30

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.

No use of any alcohol, nicotine, marijuana or other drugs for health.

 REDUCING FUTURE RATES OF ADDICTION BEGINS WITH EFFECTIVE PREVENTION  Teens are leading the way by making One Choice: Over 25% of high school seniors have NEVER used any substance

For more on the developing teen brain, visit to take a 15-minute course for parents from the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research (CeASAR) at Children’s Hospital Boston, USA that explains the effects of alcohol and drugs on the brain and gives science-based strategies for protecting adolescents from substance use.

Learn More about the Health Effects of Drugs



Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Brain development, teen behavior and preventing drug use.

Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, FCD Prevention Works. (2016, December 28). Effects of drugs on the teen brain.


Meruelo, A. D., Castro, N., Cota, C. I., & Tapert, S. F. (2017). Cannabis and alcohol, and the developing brain. Behavioural Brain Research, 325(Pt A), 44–50.


Medina, K. L., Hanson, K. L., Schweinsburg, A. D., Cohen-Zion, M., Nagel, B. J., & Tapert, S. F. (2007). Neuropsychological functioning in adolescent marijuana users: subtle deficits detectable after a month of abstinence. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society : JINS, 13(5), 807–820.

Hanson, K. L., Winward, J. L., Schweinsburg, A. D., Medina, K. L., Brown, S. A., & Tapert, S. F. (2010). Longitudinal study of cognition among adolescent marijuana users over three weeks of abstinence. Addictive behaviors, 35(11), 970–976.


National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2011). Adolescent Substance Use: America’s #1 Public Health Problem. New York, NY: Author.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2014, July 17). The TEDS Report: Age of Substance Use Initiation among Treatment Admissions Aged 18 to 30. Rockville, MD: Author.

Back to Top ↑