Addiction, says Dr. Mark Willenbring, director of Treatment and Recovery Research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "is a disorder of young people." The vast majority of people who suffer from addiction encountered the beginnings of their illness when they were teenagers. Ninety-five percent of people who are dependent on alcohol or other drugs started before they were 20 years old.
"The adolescent brain is different from that of an adult," National Institute on Drug Abuse director Dr. Nora Volkow explains. "And that leads to behaviors that definitely put them at much higher risk to want to try drugs than the brain of an adult."
"The brain's 'front end,' the part above the eyes, exists to slow us down or stop our impulsive behaviors," explains Dr. Thomas Crowley, a physician who studies substance use and behavioral disorders among teens. "It considers the risks and benefits of our actions, and it helps us 'hit the brakes' when we consider doing things that are too risky. This front part of the brain is still developing connections to the rest of the brain until adulthood, so adolescents' brains lack some of the wiring that carries 'brake' or 'stop' messages to the rest of the brain."
At the same time, Dr. Volkow notes, teens are dealing with high levels of stress and widely available drugs.
Thirty-six-year-old Brian, struggling with an addiction, recounted his path to cocaine. "I discovered alcohol when I was 16. And I liked it. From there, it progressed to marijuana, loved it, smoked it, like I always had it on me for, you know, years. And then from there, you know, drinking in the clubs, smoking, I discovered cocaine. And that was the one."
"If you look at it from a kid's perspective," says Dr. Michael Dennis, senior research psychologist at the Illinois-based Chestnut Health Systems, "There's a lot of good reasons to use [drugs]...They're exploring. They're learning to try different things. They have impulse control problems with their brain where they don't have very good judgment about how risky something is."