Lesson “Drugs and the Teen Brain”

First published 2018. To view the latest Heads Up content, click here.

As a teacher, you know that teens are at a critical time of development. The brain doesn’t become fully developed until the mid-20s. This fact makes teens especially susceptible to the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol, putting them at a greater risk for addiction as well as damage to the brain. By sharing the article “Drugs and the Teen Brain” and teaching this lesson, you will help students learn how their brain develops and why using drugs and alcohol is especially risky.


Science Literacy, English/Language Arts, Health/Life Skills


RST.6-8.1 / RST.9-10.1

  • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts

W.6-8.1 / W.9-10.1

  • Write arguments to support claims, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence

  • Structure and function


  • Information Processing

NCSS practices

  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information / engaging in argument from evidence
  • Personal Health
  • Science and technology in society/Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges
  • 8. Science, Technology, and Society



  1. Describe how your brain changes as you grow. How can these changes affect your behavior or abilities?
    Answers may include that as you grow older, you develop and refine synapses (connections between neurons). These signal pathways allow you to learn, and they support your memory and emotions. Parts of the brain develop at different times. Specific regions of the brain are responsible for tasks such as movement, emotions, and critical thinking. As each region matures, it strengthens a person’s abilities in the tasks related to that region.
  2. Explain the purpose of the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system in the brain. Give examples of types of behavior or activities that are controlled by each of these areas.
    The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that is involved in critical thinking and decision making. This area may be active when someone weighs the pros and cons of a decision, tries to solve a problem, or plans for the future. The limbic system is involved in emotions and rewards. This area is active when a certain activity makes you feel sad or happy, such as spending time with friends.
  3. Why are teens more at risk for becoming addicted to drugs than adults? Support your answer with text evidence.
    Answers may include that people can become addicted to drugs because using them causes feelings of pleasure, which causes a release of dopamine in the brain. This chemical helps the brain remember the pleasurable experience. Over time, bursts of dopamine teach the brain to seek out drugs over any other rewarding experience. Teens are more at risk because the teen brain, which relies heavily on the reward center in the limbic system, is more sensitive to the effects of dopamine.


  • Grades 6–8: Explain how the prefrontal cortex helps to reduce risk-taking.
  • Grades 9–10: The legal drinking age is 21. Do you agree with this policy? Cite text evidence to support your answer.
  • Grades 11-12: Parts of the teen brain are not yet fully developed. Explain why his can be harmful but also beneficial.


  • “Addiction Is a Disease” blog post: March 29, 2016.
    This article describes how drugs can cause brain changes that lead to addiction.
  • Writing prompt: Cite text evidence from the “Addiction Is a Disease” blog entry to describe additional ways that drug addiction harms the brain. Also explain why addiction is considered a disease.

Student Activity Sheet


Multiple choice 1. c; 2. b; 3. d; 4. False; 5. b; 6. True; 7. a; 8. True.

“Now Try This”:

  1. Answers may include that because the critical-thinking area of their brains is still developing, teens rely on the limbic system (involved in rewards and emotions) to make decisions. This may cause teens to make risky decisions that give immediate rewards. Teens’ limbic systems are also more sensitive to dopamine, which may cause them to crave drugs more than adults.
  2. Answers may include that the teen brain is still in development, so exposure to drugs can negatively affect a teen’s neural pathways. Positive experiences, like learning a skill, help the brain build new connections.

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