The Stages of Brain Development and Substance Abuse

The brain is a very complex organ and the more we learn about how it develops, the more we understand how substance abuse impacts its development process. There are five crucial stages of brain development during a person’s life. Here is a breakdown of each stage and how substance abuse can affect it.

Stage 1: In Utero

During this stage, all brain development is happening while the baby is in the womb. It is important for the mother to be mindful of what she eats while pregnant. She should consume folic acid and take vitamins B6 and B12 to help stimulate the fetus’s brain.

For a pregnant mother, all stimulants and illegal substances should be avoided because they will directly impact her child’s development. The unborn child of a substance abusing mother will struggle with cognitive performance, information processing, and attention to tasks as they get older. Learn more about the warning signs of substance abuse if you are concerned someone is using harmful drugs during pregnancy.

Stage 2: Birth to Six Years

In the second stage of brain development, all senses and brain functions are working. Perceptions, emotions, planning, memory, reasoning, attachment, and movement are beginning to form and function during these years. It is important for children to be nurtured and in safe surroundings amid this stage.

During stage two, a child that was exposed to drugs while in the womb is beginning to show signs of cognitive hindrance, slower information processing, and less control of feelings and emotions.

Stage 3: Seven Years to 22 Years

Between the ages of seven and 22, a person’s brain continues forming. Fatty tissues which surround the neurons help stabilize brain connections and speed up electrical impulses. This is one of the most important stages of brain development because the prefrontal cortex is still maturing.

During these years, all substance abuse should be avoided because it directly impacts the formation of the prefrontal cortex which controls personality development, impulse control, and complex planning. Abusing drugs and/or alcohol during this stage of life can also speed up the regression process upon full development.

Stage 4: 23 Years to 65 Years

At the age of 23, a person’s brain is at its peak power for about 4 more years. During the years of this brain stage, the executive control function begins to decrease. Working memory also begins to decrease. Substance abuse during these years can speed up the deterioration process of the brain’s executive control functions. Avoiding things like drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes while living a healthy lifestyle that involves exercise, clean eating, and learning new things will combat the decline.

Stage 5: 66 Years and Older

In this final stage of development, very critical brain cells are lost. These cells are responsible for processing and holding a person’s memories. To prevent this stage from progressively enhancing, be sure to reduce stress, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and continue learning new skills to keep the brain active and thinking.

Elderly individuals who abuse substances during the final stage of brain development can expect an increase of cognitive impairment and medical comorbidity (one or more additional disorders occurring at the same time).

If you are concerned about your child’s use of illegal substances, learn how you can talk to your teen about addiction. For more help addressing substance abuse, please contact Mazzitti and Sullivan. Our caring team of counselors is here to help you and your family navigate the mental and emotional complexities of addiction through individual and family therapies.