Addiction Science: The Teenage Brain and a New Online Drug and Alcohol Prevention Program

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Guest Blogger, Kim Bemis, founder of Gobi.

Every human culture has its intoxicating substances—and in each culture there is a subset of users who become addicted.

In the U.S., 21st century addiction problems are appearing earlier in life[1], according to the latest scientific data revealed in May by the nation’s foremost addiction experts at a New York conference I attended.

Addiction science reveals that abuse and addiction occurring in the biologically sensitive period of adolescence can harm a vulnerable brain—so much so that abusers’ and addicts’ brains may not reach their full potential or function normally. This is because repeated and chronic use of substances targets the paired system governing behavior: the brain’s reward center (nucleus accumbens) and the impulse-control center (prefrontal cortex). As the keynote speaker, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow, put it: “Addiction and drugs attack the reward centers we need to survive. They hijack that system” by radically disrupting the neurochemical signals to produce constant reward-seeking behavior with no checks or balances from the impulse control center. “When executive function is decreased you are at risk of seeking rewards without sound judgment.”

Dr. Volkow also emphasized that the prefrontal cortex—that brain capacity so critical to making executive decisions in the person’s and society’s best interests—is not fully developed until age 25. Yet in our society, we have 15-year-olds—and younger—at risk of jeopardizing their developing brains with excessive use of drugs and alcohol. Not only do these chemicals have the power, over time, to change the circuitry of the developing adolescent brain, but extensive or continued use robs adolescents of normal and necessary growth experiences central to identity formation, positive affiliation, family/community connection and a sense of purpose.

This concerns me because I am an entrepreneur who has spent the last 11 years working in the drug and alcohol recovery field—and the scientific insights my background gives me suggest we are, as a society, at risk of creating a culture that promotes access to substances in a way that leads to easy use, frequent overuse and, too often, to abuse.

Of course, addiction doesn’t happen overnight; one drink won’t hurt. But the science suggests it is essential to educate the public to understand that teen substance use is a public health problem and that addiction is a complex brain disease that, in most cases, originates in adolescence. Our health systems must work to prevent or delay the onset of substance use through effective public health measures.[2] I want to do all I can to help prevent teens from abuse and addiction, to help them make better decisions. Here’s who I am and what I do:

  • A gratefully sober man for over 27 years, able to enjoy the blessings of family and friends because of my recovery from drug and alcohol addiction
  • A former executive of an internationally renowned treatment center helping people get sober, stay sober and reconnect with life
  • Now, the CEO of Gobi, a new, accessible and affordable approach to intervening to help teens who might be in trouble because of their substance use. Gobi (gobi.support) is a novel online tool for teens and their family members. It is science-based and developed by expert clinicians in addiction science, parents and teens, Gobi is intended to reach digital natives in their own space—online, with social media follow-up and support. At the same time, Gobi also supports parents, with research on adolescent substance use and tips on communicating effectively with teenagers. Figures 1, 2, and 3 convey sample findings from our recent user survey during the 60-day course of Gobi online programing.

Figure 1: Fig1_Gobi connects

Figure 2:Fig2_Gobi offers keys to change

Figure 3: Fig3_Gobi results

In May 2016 I had breakthrough experiences at two tremendous addiction conferences: “From Statistics to Solutions Prevention Summit: Addressing Underlying Issues of Youth Substance Abuse,” in the Twin Cities, with sponsors and partners including Know the Truth, Our Young Addicts, Minnesota Teen Challenge, and more, and “The Addicted Brain and New Treatment Frontiers: Sixth Annual Aspen Brain Forum,” sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences and the Aspen Brain Forum in New York City.

Below, I share several key messages from the New York summit. In my next post, I’ll elaborate on my Minnesota conference aha moments, and the tremendously encouraging things happening.

  • Over time and frequent use, substance-induced changes to the brain impair a person’s self-control and ability to make sound decisions, while sending intense impulses to continue to use—just to feel “normal.”
  • Our brains develop from the bottom to the top and from the back to the front until approximately age 25. Brain circuitry during this developmental stage is particularly vulnerable to substances of abuse.
  • Data show that teenagers are more likely than adults to experiment with alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal/prescription drugs, and also have a higher rate of addiction: Among addicted Americans, 1 in 4 began using before age 18, which compares to 1 in 25 who started using at age 21 or later[3].
  • Underlying youth addiction is a complex network and interplay of neurobiology, psychology, social and family dynamics and genetics.
  • Brains do recover! Never lose sight of this.

Early detection and intervention in teen substance use, with the explicit goal of preventing the progression to abuse and addiction, is really where we need innovative approaches and programs to help youth and families.

My goal with Gobi is to foster better communication in families and to help teens make better decisions around using drugs and alcohol before the “brain hijacking” occurs. I look forward to sharing some preliminary user data that suggests despite worrisome trends in adolescent drug and alcohol use, there is also encouraging news, hope and help.

[1] In my next post, I will share demographics from our early research with teens participating in the program we designed to prevent early experimentation from leading to abuse and addiction.

[2] This is a stance I share with the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. http://www.centeronaddiction.org/

[3] Data from a national survey of use patterns, Adolescent Substance Use: America’s #1 Public Health Problem.

http://www.centeronaddiction.org/newsroom/press-releases/national-study-reveals-teen-substance-use-americas-1-public-health-problem

Guest blog posts are welcome additions to the content on this website. Guest blog posts represent the views, opinions and experiences of the author and do not necessarily represent Our Young Addicts. Together, we provide parents and professionals with a variety of perspectives and information.

©2016 Our Young Addicts   All Rights Reserved.

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