THE SCIENCE OF SUBSTANCE USE
The brain connects the physical world and human experience through the complex and controlled release of specific neurochemicals like dopamine. The release of dopamine specifically influences two distinct mental functions – pleasure and memory. While natural releases of dopamine reinforce positive behaviors in adolescents such as learning, exercise, peer relationships and feelings of overall well-being, unhealthy substances like alcohol and drugs are able to catalyze the release of extra dopamine, creating an artificial “high” for the user. Because the adolescent brain is not yet fully developed, this forced release of dopamine and other neurochemicals can have a more profound and lasting impact on the adolescent.
Over time, drug usage reduces the brain’s ability to respond to intrinsic rewards, making them secondary to the “high” produced by those drugs. Even feelings of desire and love no longer have the same neurochemical effect that drugs do upon the brain’s response to external stimuli. Because dopamine is also responsible for long-term memory, the flooding of dopamine into the brain imprints the “high” into long-term memory, reinforcing the developing brain’s likelihood to take drugs again without the proper consideration of consequences. If this experience repeats, the brain enhances the neural connection between pleasure and drug-use, strengthening the association.
At Stonewater, adolescents learn about the origins, triggers and damages of substance use, and they discover healthy replacements to achieve, once again, a positive physical response to enjoyable activities.