Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Substance Abuse and the Developing Brain

The adolescent brain and brain development is adversely affected by substance use. Peer pressure, euphoria, reward, curiosity, to mask depression or anxiety, stress, obsession, pleasure seeking, to feel better, compulsion and impulsivity are key reasons why one uses drugs, outlined in a lecture by Professor Graeme. “Impulsivity is when people do things without thinking of the consequences.” (Graeme, 19:54, Drugs of Abuse). 

Experiments in Cambridge conducted with high and low impulsive rats and impulsivity was linked to drug addiction. There was less need for cocaine in high impulsivity rats (rats with less dopamine receptors), compared to an addictive need for cocaine in low impulsivity rats (rats with high dopamine receptors). Findings suggest impulsive actions (in rats) led to addiction; however, further studies were crucial in regards to human brain development. The presence of high or low dopamine receptors in the human brain can also be a precursor to addiction. 

In addition, Dr. Amir Levine, psychiatrist and neuroscientist, stated in lectures that, Adolescence is a crucial time for the development of addiction.” (Levine,:40, World Science Festival). Adolescent development, age and addiction percentages are staggering. For example, there is a “25% chance of becoming addicted [using an illicit drug before the age of 18] but . . . after the age of 21, [there is] only a 4% chance of becoming addicted.” (Levine,:30, World Science Festival). 

Adolescent development is a period of profound change and involves several key elements with two stages. First, an outward period of fun, growth, and curiosity followed by a stage of “inner conflict and familial perturbation [that can lead to] dysfunction, apathy and alienation.” (Essau, 2008, Pg.3). 

While both stages include opportunity and vulnerability, both necessary in order to navigate to successful adulthood, “vulnerable” aspects can lead to addiction. The concepts of addiction are not always clear. Internal and external factors such as environment and personality play major roles; however, the absolute definition of addiction is difficult. 

Addiction can be physiological (physical body), bio-behavioral (changes in the brain), compulsion (similar to the D2 experiments with rats), pleasure, impulse, need and identity. 

Albert Bandura, developmental theorist, studied self-efficacy and social cognition. His social cognition theory empathizes, “behavior as being learned symbolically through central processing of response” (Essau, 2009, Pg. 7) which shows that behavior is learned via observation. Self-efficacy, one’s belief that they can succeed, promotes changes through “affective, cognitive, choice, and motivational processes.” (Essau, 2009, Pg. 7). 

Both components are necessary in adolescent development in order to abstain from or overcome addiction. For example, if one is raised in an environment where drug use is normalized, they are more apt to use. Add non-motivation, lack of praise and love and the incidence for drug use and abuse is prevalent when compared to one raised in an environment where dangers of drugs are taught and praise and love are practiced. 
In both veins, an adolescent must be motivated to not use and have enough self-efficacy to avoid using. In addition, if one does use, they must be able to have been taught and learned that they are strong enough to overcome abuse, dependency and addiction. 

Psychosocial development plays a major role in addiction. “Adolescent mental health problems can be seen to precede addictive behaviors, [and] addictive behaviors have also been shown to exacerbate mental health problems.” (Essau, 2009, Pg. 10). Social factors such as peer pressure, placement in family structure, and how an adolescent deals with issues, add to developmental challenges. 

Neurobiological factors such as dopamine, as seen in the talk with Dr. Graeme, explains how “neurobiological mechanisms [are] involved in developing an addiction to drugs.” (Essau, 2009, Pg. 10). These are all examples of the severity of how substance use disorder begins, due to an adolescent's lack of experience, lack of knowledge, and/or immature brain development.

In the BBC production, Teenagers: Secret Life of Growing Up, emotional maturity is reached “by the age of 16” (BBC, Segment 11, 2016), however, utilizing control of emotions has not yet surfaced. Most adolescents that develop substance abuse issues occur before the age of 16 when adolescents learn by observing those around them, from peer pressure and the need to experiment and take risks. 

From the age of five to the age of 18, adolescents go through horrendous changes that affect an individual on physical, biological, emotional, neurological and mental scales. These are confusing and frightening times. 

Problem solving skills, self-love, healthy risk-taking, and self-perseverance are essential tools that must be taught and learned from family, parents, and caregivers. Unfortunately, most adolescents that are dependent learn negative behaviors from the same groups of people. 

It is imperative that a child is equipped with positive tools to overcome physical, biological, emotional, neurological and mental difficulties that arise throughout adolescence into adulthood in order to combat the future possibility of addiction.


BBC. (2016). Teenagers: Secret Life of Growing Up. Films Media Group. Segment 11 retrieved from: http://fod.infobase.com.library.esc.edu/p_ViewVideo.aspx?xtid=124986

Essau, Cecelia. (2008). Adolescent Addiction: Epidemiology, Assessment, and Treatment. Print. Chapter One. Pg. 3, 7, 10.

Graeme, Professor. (2012). University of Bristol. Drugs of abuse - what do they do to the brain? Retrieved from 19:54, Best of Bristol Lectures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKMgt96HGnk

Levine, Amir. (2014). The Teenage Brain Is Primed For Addiction. World Science Festival. :30 and :40 retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNAbf3J3lR0


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