Traumatic Brain Injury, Drug Addiction, and the Developing Teen Brain

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A drawing that shows the electrical impulses in the brain.

These days, when there are news reports about traumatic brain injury (TBI), it’s almost always related to football. And while one of the effects of TBI is an increased risk of using drugs and alcohol (especially for teens), this post isn’t really about that. (However, this post is.)

This post is about the turf TBIs and drugs share: the developing teen brain.

The Developing Teen Brain: Why It's at Risk

We’ve talked a lot about why drug use is so dangerous in your teen years—that it raises your risk for being addicted. (Here’s a great explanation.) The teen brain is still developing—growing—and this makes it more flexible, more impressionable. So what you do now has a big impact on who you become as an adult. Like molding clay before it hardens, or programming a computer, you are wiring your brain.

It turns out that the developing brain is also at high risk for concussions, which doctors call "mild TBIs". Concussions can cause people to feel confused and depressed, to have a hard time remembering events around the time of the injury, to get headaches and seizures, and possibly to lose consciousness (pass out).

TBIs and the Developing Teen Brain

Compared with adults, children and teens have large heads in relation to their necks (like a bobblehead) and their brains’ nerve fibers can be torn apart more easily. So children and teens have a greater chance of getting a concussion. Many young people recover rapidly, but the younger a person is, the longer it can take to recover. Sometimes, young people have more serious effects from TBIs compared to adults.

It isn't just age that makes a difference; research from the past few years has shown that girls are at a greater risk for concussions than boys, and girls' brains need more time to recover than previously thought.

Every concussion is different. When two heads slam together (inside helmets or not) or a ball hits your head, it can force your brain out of its protective fluid, slamming it against your skull and shaking it. It can disrupt how your brain works—for a few seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, or forever.

The nature of the injury, where it happens in the brain, the individual characteristics of the person’s brain, and environment all play a role in how bad the damage is. And people who get a concussion and go back to playing too soon are at risk of getting additional concussions more easily, and possibly having much more severe outcomes. In rare cases, this can even cause death.

TBIs and Drugs: Protect Yourself

TBIs pose higher risks for the teen brain because it's still being formed. This is also one of the reasons that using drugs as a teen increases the chances for addiction—the brain is simply more vulnerable while it’s developing.

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. Take precautions to protect your brain. Seat belts and helmets can save your life. But if you do get a concussion, listen to your doctor and force yourself to rest for the full time prescribed, even when you feel ready to get back to the sport you love. And remember, there’s no helmet for drugs. So protect your brain…inside and out.

Tell us in comments: Does this post help you think differently about your brain?

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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