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The Brain & Substances

The Brain & Substances

Your brain is a balance of chemical reactions, so what happens when you change the balance with alcohol or marijuana?

Since we already know how the brain develops, let’s throw an extra variable into the equation: substances such as alcohol or marijuana.

Most of us know the effects of these substances from movies or tv. Someone’s drinking and they start to stumble around or say something dumb. Characters who are stoned start to laugh a lot and get the munchies. So even though we might know the external signs of being under the influence, let’s look under the hood at how the brain processes these substances.

frontal cortex

Even though the brain develops from back to front, substance use affects the brain from the front to the back. The frontal cortex is the first part of the brain to be affected by substance use. For example, someone under the influence of alcohol may take more risks and be less aware of their surroundings. With continued use substances can start to affect the limbic system, which can result in extreme emotional reactions from users. In extreme cases of use, substances can finally affect the back parts of the brain, including the brainstem. This can affect the user’s breathing and heart rate and can result in a medical emergency.

Substance Use and the Brain

Addictive substances and the teenage brain is a dangerous combination. While the brain is still developing, teens are at their highest risk for developing lifelong addictions. Substances can block important chemical releases of dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is a naturally occurring chemical  in your brain that brings pleasure and happiness. The brain uses dopamine to reward certain actions. Eating food, sleeping, and social interaction – all of these result in a dopamine release. But substance use actually blocks the dopamine receptors in your brain, tricking it into thinking that these chemicals in addictive substances are actually dopamine. The brain begins to crave these chemicals and your natural dopamine levels get thrown out of whack.

When you look at the statistics, it starts to make sense about why teens are told to avoid substance use:

  • 9 out of 10 Americans struggling with addiction started using substances in their teen years
  • Teens who begin using substances before age 18 run a 1 in 4 chance of developing a lifetime addiction
  • By waiting until 21 for first use, your chances of developing addiction drop down 1 in 25, a dramatic decrease


Substance use can cause long-term damage to the brain on top of the many other health risks that alcohol, nicotine, and other drugs have on the body. Many teens turn to substances to cope with stress, but there are healthier options than turning to drugs and alcohol.

Protect your brain for the long haul. Click here for some GrowStrongKC tips for some healthier coping skills.

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