How the Teen Brain Can Keep Itself Healthy

Neurological science provides answers

New Ways to Keep Kids Healthy

New scientific research improves current understanding of the adolescent brain in relation to alcohol and other drugs. At FCD Prevention Works™, the prevention arm of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, we are passionate about bringing the most relevant information into our work to keep healthy kids healthy.
Whether you work with teens, or live with them, you may be interested to know about how the principle of plasticity has reshaped our ideas about the brain’s organization, development and functioning, and how it changes throughout the life span.

Did You Know? #1

The teenage brain is far more susceptible to addiction than the adult brain. The principle of brain plasticity helps to explain why that is. Let’s take a closer look at the basic definition of brain plasticity, how it functions in the healthy teen brain, and its role in prevention, addiction, and recovery.

Our Old Understanding of the Teen Brain

Until recently, it was commonly believed that by adulthood, the brain was fully formed and no longer changing. Many of us received that dire warning from our parents, "You're born with all the brain cells you'll ever have. Once they're gone, they're gone!"

Other outdated, but once commonly held beliefs about the brain included:
  • Brain development begins in the womb and stops in adolescence
  • Brain growth happens in stages with clear stops and starts
  • One only develops certain abilities while in the relevant stage
  • At each stage, new development is cemented into brain function
  • If development goes poorly within a stage, problems carry forward
  • Specific parts of the brain perform specific functions
  • Damage to a specific part of the brain will impair a specific function
  • Without surgical intervention, impaired function will remain so through life

Over time, neuroscientists have slowly been moving toward a different understanding of the brain, especially during adolescence and young adulthood. Not all of the previously held principles have been entirely swept away, but many have been complicated by the realization that the brain is a much more adaptive organ than we once thought.

Changing How We Think of the Brain

Since the late 1800s, scientists have been talking about the idea of brain "plasticity." Without a way to study the theory, it was ignored by the practicing scientific community. By the mid-20th century, brain science technologies had advanced enough to truly examine this principle.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, a series of animal and human studies revealed some interesting new findings:

  • As opposed to specific stages, brain development has more of a general trajectory
  • Major brain maturation continues at least into a person's twenties
  • Abilities are most easily, but not always necessarily, learned in sequence
  • While specific parts of the brain are associated with specific functions, usually, the brain's many tasks are shared among multiple parts or areas
  • Damage to a part may impair function, but other parts can often compensate
  • With healthcare assistance, healing of brain function is possible

Did You Know? #2

Neuroscientists now understand that the brain remains "plastic," meaning it has the capacity to change, grow, learn, and re-learn, throughout the whole life span. Although certain changes become more difficult as we age, change remains possible at all times.

Getting Plasticity into Our Heads

Think of the brain as a network of routers. This network is the pathway upon which billions of bits of information per nanosecond are exchanged. When a route becomes damaged or blocked, the brain is capable of finding both new routes and new uses for old routes. These changes occur at the connection points between brain cells, called synapses. Physical changes in how brain cells connect to each other represent a major aspect of brain plasticity.
Now think of the brain as a lump of Silly Putty. Imagine flattening the putty into a thin layer and pressing it down firmly upon a newspaper page. Lifting the text from the newspaper, the Silly Putty is changed by an outside influence. This sort of change happens to brain cells too—sometimes even at the level of their DNA. An outside influence may change what jobs the brain cells perform, the manner of their performance, or the speed in which they work. This is the other major aspect of brain plasticity.
Both forms of brain plasticity—change that occurs in cell-to-cell connections and change that occurs within the cells themselves—occur in response to what happens in our lives. The more we do something, or have the same experience over and over again, the greater that experience’s power to shape the plastic brain.

Did You Know? #3

It is also the case that, the younger we are, the more naturally plastic our brains are. Therefore, repeated experiences that occur early in life have massive brain-changing potential! Many skills may be most readily acquired at particular points in brain development. For example, it is easier to learn languages during the infant and toddler years than it is in early childhood and beyond. Such periods of easy acquisition are called "sensitive periods."

Neuroplasticity in the Healthy Teen Brain

Adolescence is a sensitive period for multiple key life skills, including:

  • Adaptation to social environments
  • Memory
  • Emotional regulation and stress management
  • Delayed gratification
  • Risk assessment and risk-benefit analysis

Life skills acquired in adolescence are important protective factors against substance use. For instance, some students define "fitting in" as "being popular," while others talk about "finding out where you belong," or "where you can be accepted for who you are." Whatever a student's own definition, fitting in is a major developmental task for adolescents. How students accomplish this task shapes their brains moving forward. If a teen's brain is shaped by a feeling of acceptance for who she is and a sense of belonging to groups that values her, her brain in this regard will easily build a layer of protection against substance use. Other layers of protection can be also added, such as the ability to identify the significant risk involved in one-time substance use, the ability to weigh that risk against any potential benefits, and the ability to delay any gratification substance use might bring to the student until she is able to identify and select healthier alternatives that fulfill those same wants or needs.
During adolescence, the brain is the most plastic it will ever be again. All of the experiences, patterns of behavior, peer bonds, and self-perceptions teens develop during this time can mold the brain—like Silly Putty—into the shape of the adult to come. The teen with a passion for music develops a finer ear for pitch and tone, while the teen athlete's brain becomes efficient at producing the hormones necessary for peak performance. Skills and capabilities gained during adolescence are more difficult to alter than those acquired at a later age. Therefore, when a teen can acquire healthy neural adaptations to his or her lived reality, her adulthood is positioned to be healthy as well. The more protective factors against risky behaviors like substance use teens can acquire—and the earlier they can do so—the more easily the brain can withstand the lure of unhealthy behaviors throughout life.

Neuroplasticity, Addiction, and Recovery

Consider again the lump of Silly Putty with its imprinted newsprint. Though it was quite easy to make the imprint, removing the image will take more work. This illustrates another principle of brain plasticity: especially as we age, changes that came from plastic adaptations to the outside influences of our lived realities are harder to unmake than they were to make in the first place.
Addiction to alcohol and other drugs is one such adaptation. Alcohol and other drugs affect the parts of our brains responsible for motivating and reinforcing behavior. When a teen uses alcohol or other drugs, his brain rewires itself in response, lessening its own natural ability to motivate the individual toward healthy alternatives or to reinforce healthy behaviors that do not include use. Unfortunately, while the brain naturally reinforces and motivates many behaviors, substance use mostly reinforces and motivates further use. This chain reaction produces addiction.
Given the plasticity of the adolescent brain, this unhealthy adaptation is particularly easy to make. Adolescent capacities for risk assessment, emotional regulation, and delayed gratification are still developing. Therefore, the adolescent capacity to resist the cravings and impulses created when alcohol and other drugs motivate the brain toward continued, progressive use is low.
From the perspective of brain plasticity, recovery is the ongoing effort to over-write the changes made to brain chemistry during addiction. Both the signal router and Silly Putty versions of brain change occur in addiction, and again in recovery. The teen brain in particular has some strong capacity to create new information pathways and make new uses of pre-existing ones.
Have you ever tried to replace a habit you were trying to break with one you thought was healthier? It was a bit of a struggle, wasn't it? Your process may have been similar to the processes begun by those who enter recovery. Over time and with consistent practice of new behaviors and healthy lived experiences, healthier pathways are more easily accessed and the old addiction-fueled pathways begin to atrophy. The ongoing result is newer, healthier motivational pathways with an increasingly powerful influence on behavior. Unfortunately, the brain, even in healthy recovery, is still shaped by teen addiction to substances before recovery began. You can rub the newspaper imprint from the Silly Putty, but some vestige of it will remain; you cannot remove all of the ink entirely.

Did You Know? #4

Just as addiction is easier to develop during adolescence, long-term recovery that begins during adolescence also has the benefit of the greater plasticity to facilitate this over-writing process. Adults, on the other hand, may have a more difficult time with this process. This is one of the many reasons we at FCD Prevention Works urge intervention as early as possible in the case of a young person making risky decisions about alcohol and other drug use.

Always Learning, Always Growing

Our understanding of the human brain is constantly growing. Learning more about how the teen brain works can help us to guide the young people in our lives to a healthy adolescent experience. While alcohol and other drugs can particularly interfere with a developing brain in the teen years, young people are exceptionally ready at this time in their lives to build new skills that can protect them from such threats into the future, especially when they make the healthy choice to be alcohol and other drug free. At FCD Prevention Works, we are committed to incorporating what we know about the teenage brain research into our understanding of prevention. We welcome you to join us in growing your understanding of the teen brain for the prevention benefit of the kids you know!

For further reading on brain plasticity as it applies to these issues as well as those beyond substance use and addiction, we recommend The Brain That Changes Itself, by Dr. Norman Doidge.

FCD Prevention Works™ is the leading international nonprofit provider of school-based substance use prevention services. For 40 years, FCD has worked worldwide to provide students and the adults who care for them with the knowledge, understanding and skills they need to make intelligent, healthy choices about alcohol, tobacco and other drug use. FCD is part of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

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