Drug Use, Abuse and Addiction in the Teenage Brain

It’s definitely uncool to say that drugs are bad, and depending on where you are on the political spectrum, it can win you accolades or call your political credentials into doubt.

This is a shame.

There should be a clear, unbiased, testable way to discuss the issue of drug use and abuse.  In other words: a scientific way.

Recently a neuroscientist from the University of Pennsylvania named Dr. Frances Jensen has been making the news and interview rounds in the promotion of her book, “The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.”  Her research has found that in the teenage brain in particular, drug use can have serious effects not seen in the mature adult brain.  The following is an excerpt from her interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air (April 15, 2016):

On why teenagers are more prone to addiction

Addiction is actually a form of learning. ... What happens in addiction is there's also repeated exposure, except it's to a substance and it's not in the part of the brain we use for learning — it's in the reward-seeking area of your brain. ... It's happening in the same way that learning stimulates and enhances a synapse. Substances do the same thing. They build a reward circuit around that substance to a much stronger, harder, longer addiction.

Just like learning a fact is more efficient, sadly, addiction is more efficient in the adolescent brain. That is an important fact for an adolescent to know about themselves — that they can get addicted faster.

It also is a way to debunk the myth, by the way, that, "Oh, teens are resilient, they'll be fine. He can just go off and drink or do this or that. They'll bounce back." Actually, it's quite the contrary. The effects of substances are more permanent on the teen brain. They have more deleterious effects and can be more toxic to the teen than the adult.

This information is important to have and important to share.  It can start discussions about the actual evidence around the sensitive issue of drug use and our young people.  Unfortunately, this topic can become emotionally volatile with each side running to its corner to defend what tends to be a political agenda.

It’s not that discussing the political implications of drugs, addiction, and violence are not important, but we should as a society strive to separate one issue from the other—the scientific from the political.

If evidence shows that drug use is potentially more harmful to the young, developing brain, then we should have the will and humility to look at that evidence with calm analysis and rigorous inquiry.

Information should always precede action.