Addiction Science

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National Drug Facts Week: Clarifying Some Myths

Let’s clarify some myths about drugs, based on neuroscience research.

It is National Drug Facts Week (November 8-14), and we would like to help clarify some myths about drugs, based on the neuroscience research.

  • How common is drug use in young people? While drug use is common among young people in the US, it is important to note that by 12th grade, more than half (53%) of American adolescents have never tried an illicit drug. In comparison, about 1 in 13 8th graders and 1 in 4 12th graders have used an illicit drug. Therefore, most young people do NOT use drugs.
  • What do we know about drug use and the brain?
    • In the past 15 years, the field of brain science has learned tremendously from new techniques for imaging the brain:
      • The brain is still developing a lot during adolescence (ages 12-18) and may therefore be particularly vulnerable to drugs. 
      • The brain of people who have used alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, or other drugs functions differently than that of individuals who have not used these substances. 
      • Brain functioning is acutely affected by drugs.
      • In combinations, these results raise the possibility that use of drugs may cause long-term harms to the brain. 
    • These differences in brain structure, size, integrity, and function between individuals who use and those who do not use drugs can be linked to performance on tests of thinking and memory, as well as emotional well being. 
      • Repeatedly drinking alcohol to the point of getting drunk has been linked to poorer performances on tests of spatial skills (like following a map, putting together a puzzle), attention, and to remember information that was previously learned.
      • Drinking enough alcohol so that you feel bad the next day (that is, hangover symptoms like headache) has been linked to problems with brain health, and thinking and memory. Drinking to the point of having a blackout (can't remember some parts of the night before) has been linked to even more long lasting harms to brain health. 
      • Repeated use of marijuana appears linked to poorer performances of tests of attention as well as ability to learn new information.
    • Taken together, brain function is changed by drugs, which in turn may change brain development and result in long-term problems of thinking and feeling.
  • What is different about teens who use drugs?
    • Adolescents who have used alcohol and other drugs tend to also report more signs of depression, poorer grades in school, and getting in trouble (with school, parents, or the law) as compared to teens who haven't used.
    • Brain imaging studies have shown some differences between users and nonusers on measures of brain activation and structure, which may exist before the drug use started.
  • Can we predict problems with modern brain science? Several brain imaging and cognitive testing studies have found brain functioning may predict with fairly high accuracy who will go on to use drugs and who won't.
    • People whose brains works harder in response to a new task seem less likely to go on to start or continue drug use.
    • Young people who have healthy, strong brain systems that help us "stop" an unwanted action seem less likely to start or continue drug use. 
    • Young people who perform better on tests of attention and problem solving appear less likely to develop substance use problems as they move in to young adulthood.
  • Myths to be aware of:
    • "Everyone is getting high or drunk!" Not all teenagers use substances: 53% of American adolescents have never tried an illicit drug by the end of high school. Sometimes we notice the people who are getting drunk or high, but there are lots of young people who choose not to use!
    • "Marijuana is natural, so it must be good for you!" Marijuana is not "good for you". Yes, marijuana is a plant, and it has been found to have some very specific medical benefits for people who are receiving chemotherapy or who have glaucoma, but it does NOT appear to have other benefits. In fact, while some people choose to use "medical marijuana" for mood, pain, and sleep problems, marijuana generally makes mood, pain, and sleep problems worse!
    • "If I use uppers, I'll lose weight and do better in school." Repeated use and reliance on these drugs over time can produce the opposite effects - weight gain, and poorer performance in school and sports
    • "Pills are safe." If not used exactly as prescribed to you by a healthcare professional, pills can be just as dangerous as street drugs to your brain and overall health. 
    • "Using drugs makes you creative!" While some talented people have ended up having drug problems, the talent came before the drug use. For example, years of hard work in music, sports, or acting brought some people to great success, but substance use has called short the lives of too many, who otherwise could have had longer and happier lives.

For more information, please see the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) websites: http://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/ for youth-specific info and http://drugfactsweek.drugabuse.gov/index.php.

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Susan Tapert, Ph.D. is a psychologist at the University of California San Diego and the VA San Diego Healthcare System studying the relationships between brain functioning and addictive behaviors. more...

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