Adolescence and early adulthood are times of self-definition and increasing autonomy. They are also periods of heightened sensitivity to social influences and vulnerability to the onset of mental problems, including substance use and mood disorders. The physical and mental health of adolescents was the focus of a day-long program, "What's Happening to Me? Inside the Mind and Body of an Adolescent," at the 2008 annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, held in Boston in October. About 60 pediatricians and scientists who study adolescents attended a symposium, sponsored and organized by NIDA, that described the adolescent brain and cognitive development and considered the impact of drug abuse on young people.
At the symposium, neuroscientists presented findings of imaging studies indicating that the brain continues to mature during adolescence and into young adulthood. They also noted recent findings on the structural and functional changes that occur in the brain as children mature into adolescents; the changing balance between emotional and inhibitory neural circuits that influence an increased tendency toward risk-taking during adolescence; and the negative impact of adolescent marijuana abuse on cognitive abilities, including attention and memory. Researchers also described studies that seek to determine whether individuals exposed prenatally to drugs are more vulnerable to substance abuse and other behavior problems than unexposed peers.
"The primary goal of the session was to update clinicians on the influence of drugs on neurodevelopment from infancy through young adulthood—particularly recent data on adolescent brain development that may shape substance abuse prevention and treatment for teens," said NIDA's Dr. Karen Sirocco, the symposium moderator.