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Adolescents more vulnerable to effects of drugs, alcohol

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  • Brains of teenagers are still evolving and adolescent behavior can program them for a lifetime of habits and lifestyles.

    Brains of teenagers are still evolving and adolescent behavior can program them for a lifetime of habits and lifestyles.

  • Brains of teenagers are still evolving and adolescent behavior can program them for a lifetime of habits and lifestyles.

    Brains of teenagers are still evolving and adolescent behavior can program them for a lifetime of habits and lifestyles.

  • Brains of teenagers are still evolving and adolescent behavior can program them for a lifetime of habits and lifestyles.
  • Brains of teenagers are still evolving and adolescent behavior can program them for a lifetime of habits and lifestyles.

What do we know about the child’s brain?

Scientists used to believe the brain was largely developed by adolescence. But now, research indicates that the brain is still “under construction” — and problems that teens develop with drugs and alcohol during this critical period can pave the way for a lifetime of addiction, says Jennifer Michaels, M.D., medical director for the Brien Center, a large mental health and substance abuse treatment center in Pittsfield.

“Fortunately today we have MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), PET (Positron Emission Tomography), SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) and other forms of technology that allow windows into the brain,” said Michaels, who spoke recently in Northampton about how alcohol, drugs, and overuse of technology affects the developing teen brain. “We are not only getting a structural understanding of the brain, but we are learning, at a whole different order of magnitude, how the brain is working and developing.”

While the brain reaches its full size and volume by age 10, she said, it is still evolving for many years after that — a concept known as neuroplasticity. As a result, the adolescent brain is being “programmed” in terms of habits and lifestyles, she said.

“It takes 20 years to fully program the brain,” Michaels said. “The habits that you develop as a teenager are pretty much programmed for life. It’s hard to change after that and we now know that the adolescent brain is acutely sensitive to drugs and alcohol.”

Science of ‘impulsive’

The outermost portion of the brain — the area controlling executive functions — is not fully developed until the early 20s.

“This is why younger people are impulsive,” she said. “They have a lot of

emotions, but not so much ability to control those emotions and impulses.”

Part of that impulsiveness can involve partying and abuse of alcohol and other substances. “What we are seeing in young people who drink a lot, who do a lot of recurrent recreational drinking, is that the memory center of the brain can shrink,” Michaels said.

“In MRIs of teens who drink regularly, the hippocampus (the memory center of the brain) is 10 percent smaller than in teens who do not drink. It’s like taking the memory out of a computer,” she said.

As a result, teens that drink regularly will experience a decline in test scores and grades.

“This can be subtle and something that happens over time, but it is a consequence that we need to be aware of,” Michaels said.

Pot, pills pose threat

Michaels said teens are able to drink for a longer period of time, compared to adults, and do not get as tired; as a result, they are more likely to engage in dangerous behaviors while drunk, such as driving. They are also more apt to binge drink.

“The earlier that someone engages in recreational drinking, the more likely the brain will be wired for a lifetime of addiction,” she said. “And once you have a diagnosis of alcoholism, you will never be someone who can casually drink. This is something you have for life.”

Alcohol isn’t the only concern. She noted that many people view pot smoking as more acceptable because they believe it “natural, organic, safe, and non-addictive”; natural doesn’t mean non-addictive, she pointed out.

“Marijuana is as natural as alcohol, cocaine and opium,” she said. “Just because something is natural does not mean that it is safe. Pot smoking is second only to alcohol as the leading cause of motor vehicle accidents.”

Clients at the Brien Center go through withdrawal after quitting regular marijuana use and experience symptoms such as sleeplessness, loss of appetite, irritability and more, she said. She also noted that marijuana grown today is about 10 times stronger than that on the market 20 or 30 years ago.

Michaels said over the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of recreational users of pills.

“This situation has become so bad that people are more likely to die of an

overdose than a car accident today,” she said.

Michaels said many young people get pills from their parents’ medicine cabinets or at friends’ houses. She urges parents to get rid of all drugs when their prescribed need is over.

Meanwhile, said Michaels, Ecstacy, which declined in popularity for a while, is experiencing an upsurge in use again.

Ecstacy, technology

“This drug is like Agent Orange to the brain cells,” she said. “Within two weeks of use, an MRI scan of the brain of someone who has used ecstasy shows a severe decrease in the brain cells that contain serotonin. Even seven years later, those brain cells still have not returned to normal.”

“What we know is that prolonged drug use changes the brain in fundamental and long-lasting ways,” Michaels said. “We did not know this 20 or 30 years ago, but we do now.”

Michaels said teens today are also at risk of becoming addicted to technology, spending many hours on social media sites, texting, or playing video games.

“This addiction creates a loss of the sense of time and neglect of basic drives, such as eating, sleeping, and taking care of oneself,” she said. “People with this addiction always feel a need to upgrade to better equipment, want more and more time on the computer or other device, and need more software, and they become increasingly withdrawn from others. They may experience anger, tension, and depression when the technology is unavailable to them. They may be prone to arguments, poor academic achievement, social isolation and fatigue.”

Michaels said 3 to 5 percent of teens suffer from this newly recognized disorder and all parents should be on the alert for signs of it in their kids. She noted that a study in Ohio of 4,000 teens showed that 20 percent were “hyper-texters,” who send 120 or more texts throughout the day, while 11.5 percent were “hyper-networkers” who spent three or more hours a day on social networking sites. Both of these groups were also more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, binge drink, use drugs, and have multiple sex partners.


Substance abuse expert says teens experimenting with alcohol, drugs not inevitable

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Substance abuse expert Jennifer Michaels urges parents to relinquish the idea that all teens experiment and that drinking and drug use is inevitable. “Actually, most kids are not engaging in substance abuse,” said Michaels, who heads the Brien Center, a mental health and substance abuse treatment organization in Pittsfield. Cigarette smoking among teens has decreased from 40 percent in 1975 …

Legacy Comments1

It exasperates me that experts (again and again) guise their negativity as concern. The teen years have been for some time now that period of our lives when we are the most likely to experiment, take risks and push the limits. It is no surprise that drug use peaks-among the group that uses- in the late teen years. Generally, such experimentation is not likely to end in disaster and most adolescents who try drinking and drugging do not become frequent or problem users. And most teens grow out of it quickly, with rates of drug use dropping off dramatically when they reach their early 20s. Clearly, parents want their children to be healthy. The question isn’t do we want our kids to do drugs; it is what is the best method to prevent and/or minimize harm when they are going through a life stage that for most kids necessitates pushing the boundaries? When are we going to stop believing and proliferating half-truths? What is the appeal of simple and misleading information when it comes to the topic of drugs and substance use? I’ve wondered about this stuff as an alcohol and drug specialist for over 25 years and have children of my own, one of whom is 16 years old. I am preoccupied on a daily basis with what works to keep our children safe and healthy. Again and again, fear mongering and inaccurate information ends up hurting the very people the (so-called) experts are trying to help.

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