In many communities across the country, it’s no secret drug problems can be prevalent among our youth. National surveys show, as young as 12 or 13, some children are already abusing drugs. Nearly half of high school seniors say they’ve smoked marijuana, while over 6 percent use it every day.

Especially at that young age, that’s a risk we simply can’t afford. More than many people realize, drug use has a profound impact on the adolescent brain, and can lead to consequences that affect teens for the rest of their lives.

The reason why? During adolescence, research indicates the brain is still going through significant changes—and that development continues all the way into a person’s 20s. One critical area is the prefrontal cortex, which shapes high-level cognitive functions like planning, decision-making, social interactions, and even self-control.

At this young age, drug use can cause noticeable changes not only in the teen brain’s structure, but in how it works. It actually disrupts the brain’s function, and can hamper key traits such as behavior control, learning, motivation, as well as memory. Worst of all, these changes can endure long-term, and result in bad behaviors typically seen in many drug users. In fact, the National Institutes of Health report, “Adolescents who abuse drugs often act out, do poorly academically, and drop out of school. They are at risk for unplanned pregnancies, violence, and infectious diseases.”

During early and later teen years, kids are especially susceptible to experimenting with or using drugs. At school, they usually have to deal with new challenges, both socially and academically. For the first time in their young lives, they may be exposed to drug availability, or witness substance use by older teens. Thanks to their still-developing brains, teenagers are also more prone to risk-taking or poor choices.

The bottom line? Particularly during the adolescent’s formative brain-development years, it’s more critical than ever to prevent drug use before it starts. It’s also essential for everyone to know the real risks behind teen drug use, and how it holds harmful consequences that could last a lifetime.