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Impact of substance abuse on adolescent brain examined

Dr. Jennifer Michaels describes the various stages of brain development and how drugs and alcohol can impact the developing adolescent brain at a forum  Tuesday sponsored by the Northampton Prevention Coaltion at Northampton High School.

Dr. Jennifer Michaels describes the various stages of brain development and how drugs and alcohol can impact the developing adolescent brain at a forum Tuesday sponsored by the Northampton Prevention Coaltion at Northampton High School. Purchase photo reprints »

— Over 200 parents, teachers, students and community members turned out on Tuesday evening for a “Town Hall Meeting” on the effects of alcohol, drugs and technology on the developing adolescent brain.

“This is our inaugural event of this kind,” Northampton Prevention Coalition Director Karen Jarvis Vance said, as crowds of people streamed into the cafeteria of Northampton High School.

“We are usually lucky to get 30 to 40 people to an event, so this is very exciting,” she said.

The Northampton Prevention Coalition creates and coordinates prevention and intervention efforts aimed at reducing teen substance abuse in Northampton.

“This coalition is hardworking and very proactive,” Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan said. “We work with them on a variety of programs to prevent substance abuse and underage drinking,” he said.

The evening’s keynote speaker was Dr. Jennifer Michaels, medical director of the Brien Center in Pittsfield, and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

In her presentation, Michaels detailed how the brain develops in stages over time, and how that process is affected by drugs and alcohol.

“The development of movement, perception, emotion and memory occurs in the earlier stages. What is missing in the adolescent brain, however, is a CEO to oversee all of those functions,” she said.

Michaels said the CEO, or prefrontal cortex or the brain, is responsible for cognitive analysis, abstract thought and the capacity to exercise “good judgment” when presented with difficult life situations.

As it is not fully developed, she said the adolescent brain is acutely sensitive to drugs and alcohol, comparing the developing adolescent brain to that of a developing brain in a fetus.

“Think of it this way. We say that pregnant women shouldn’t smoke or drink alcohol because of the impact that will have on the development of the baby’s brain,” Michaels said. “While the adolescent brain is further along in development, the susceptibility to substances is the same.”

Michaels said early exposure drugs and alcohol not only has an effect on mood, memory function, the ability to process and analyze information, and IQ, but also changes the way the brain functions in profound and lasting ways.

“It takes about 20 years to program your brain. If you develop a habit as a teen, it is very hard to change this as an adult,” she said. For example we know that the earlier a teen begins drinking, the more likely they are to wire their brain towards alcoholism. A teen that begins drinking at 15 has a 50 percent chance of becoming an alcoholic,” Michaels said.

Touching briefly on the addiction to technology, Michaels identified some key behaviors to look for such as: losing track of time, neglect of basic drives like social interactions, eating and personal hygiene. She also noted that stress, depression, isolation, a drop in grades, early sexual activity and a higher incidence of engaging in sex with multiple partners are also associated with technology addiction.

“In the U.S. 3 to 25 percent of teens meet the criteria of technology addiction. That study was done a year ago so I think these numbers have increased significantly,” she said.

But there is hope.

“Twenty years ago we did not have this information, but now we have the opportunity to really look at this,” Michaels said.

Jana McClure, a member of the coalition’s steering committee agreed.

“When you can understand how these substances affect the way your brain is developing, you can take a more active role in protecting how your brain will function,” McClure said. “Having this information puts youth in their own driver’s seat.”

Karen Schiaffo, parent of an eighth-grader and school nurse at JFK Middle School, said that while it may be shocking, substance abuse is a growing issue in middle school-age kids.

Michaels said parents should also avoid trying to be their child’s friend and instead function as a unified team that sets family standards and gives consistent and specific messages and information on substance abuse.

She also advised parents’ family and friends to get involved with groups like the Northampton Prevention Coalition.

Jonathan Goldman, a 10th-grader at Northampton High School, said that he thinks most students know which kids are using drugs or alcohol and believes that casually ignoring that knowledge is a part of the problem.

“It seems like some people just think that is the way it is, that is their lifestyle, that is how they are, so what can you do,” Goldman said.

The 10th-grader said he appreciated Michaels’ advice and her frank approach.

“I really like they way she spoke. A lot of times people that do presentations like this just talk down to you and tell you what to do,” said Goldman. “She made it more human, like she understood us and was talking with us, not at us. That is something that will really stick in kids’ minds,’ he said.

Michaels said that she was very impressed at this turnout and commended the coalition for its work.

The NPC is funded by a federal Drug Free Communities grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

For information on the Northampton Prevention Coalition, visit www.northamptonprevents.org

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