Blog · Apr 23, 2015
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a study that showed adolescent e-cigarette use tripled between 2013 and 2014. This new trend means we need to look not just at the negative health effects of smoking but at the overall negative health effects of nicotine on the developing teenage brain.
As with alcohol and other substances, nicotine has an especially harmful effect on the developing teenage brain. Research has shown that nicotine directly impacts monoamine neurotransmitters and the limbic system, parts of the brain necessary for emotion regulation, behavior, and memory. Neural connections are still being determined in adolescence, so the development of these areas could be compromised by the use of nicotine products.
Monoamine transmitters are made up of transmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, all of which are integral to mood. In the journal article, “The Dynamic Effects of Nicotine on the Developing Brain,” Dwyer and McQuown write “findings suggest that adolescent nicotine exposure may induce maladaptive learning in emotional contexts, which may lead to life-long mood disorders.” An imbalance of any of the monoamine transmitters can result in not only mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder, but even schizophrenia.
Dwyer and McQuown also report “nicotine may play a causal role in the persistence of impulsivity during and beyond adolescence.” Adolescence already marks a stage fraught with impulsivity, and using nicotine products just reinforces that circuitry in the brain. And these neural pathways created in adolescence are carried into adulthood.
Furthermore, studies show that teens are more sensitive than adults to nicotine’s addictive properties, because the reward center of their brain develops at a quicker rate than the prefrontal cortex. In other words, teens are more likely to take a risk and seek reward, which means they are also more susceptible to negative peer influence.
It is essential that we correct any misperceptions of harm teens have about e-cigarettes by educating them as to the negative health consequences of nicotine and by countering e-cigarette manufacturers’ purposeful targeting of youth. Candy flavored nicotine products are no less harmful than cigarettes, contrary to what teens may think. Well informed teens are better equipped to make responsible decisions, resist negative peer influence, and stay free from nicotine addiction in all of its forms.