During adolescence there’s an explosion of curiosity and creativity. There’s a fountain of energy that needs to be expressed somewhere. Along with this is a spring of emotions, with which teens usually don’t know how cope. In fact, the pre-frontal cortex of the developing brain hasn’t completed its growth. This part of the brain manages the ability to reason and to determine the dangers of certain situations. Teens, however, don’t yet have this capacity. They are instead driven by curiosity, creativity, and the need to find a way to cope with their emotions.
According to Daniel Siegel, author of Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, teens are naturally searching for what is new and novel. The burst of power and energy in the adolescent brain is a search for what is new. The teen wants to try new things and explore the world. At the same time, a teen will have a heart full of emotions. Although this can lead to moodiness, it points to the explosion of life that is happening within. And lastly, with a fiery mind and heart, full of emotions and curiosity, the teen is likely going to be creative and innovative. However, that curiosity might lead an adolescent in directions that don’t support his or her overall growth, or worse, in directions that are harmful.
One example of this is the exploration of drugs, such as marijuana. But of course using drugs comes with damaging addictions and dire circumstances. Drugs are chemicals. They affect the brain’s ability to regulate mood. They affect perception of the environment and the way the five senses function. Drugs interfere with the way the neurons in the brain communicate with each other. In fact, the brain is one large network of communication. There are billions of neurons and nerve cells that are forever taking in information and passing it along to other neurons. In order for one neuron to communicate with another, it creates a chemical, called neurotransmitters. As that neurotransmitter attaches to the part of the cell in the brain called the receptor, they operate like a key and lock. In this way, the brain makes sure that each receptor will receive the right kind of neurotransmitter. Once the neurotransmitters do their job, they are pulled back into their original neuron from which they came. When it returns, this process shuts off the messaging signal taking place between neurons.
However, when drugs are introduced into the brain, they affect the ability for neurons to communicate with one another. This is particularly dangerous for teens because the signaling and communication that is happening in the brain is on fire during adolescence. Neurons are wiring and new connections between the two hemispheres of the brain are forming. This kind of growth and connection forming is in an explosive time during adolescence. If the brain can continue to be plastic, that is, if new neural connections can continue to form and if old ones can be released, this is can support healthy brain function and mental health. These neural connections and adaptability are important in a teen’s learning, behavior, and mood regulation.
Some drugs such as marijuana will mimic a neurotransmitter and in a way “fool” a receptor. The drug will lock onto the receptors and activate the nerve cells. However, because the drug is not the neurotransmitter that is intended for that receptor, the neurons end up sending abnormal messages throughout the brain. Of course, this leads to hallucination, abnormal thoughts, and change in perception. Regular teen marijuana abuse (considered to be at least once per week) can lead to cognitive decline, poor attention, and decreased IQ levels.
If you or a friend has a problem with teen marijuana abuse, consider talking to an adult about the dangers of this drug and how you can put an end to your use of it.
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Paradigm Malibu is an adolescent mental health and drug treatment center dedicated to identifying, understanding and properly treating the core issues that impact teens and their families.