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Brain in Progress: Why Teens Can’t Always Resist Temptation

January 27, 2015

It’s National Drug Facts Week, when middle and high schools all over the country host events to raise awareness about drugs and addiction, with the help of scientists from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The issues I discussed in my TEDMED talk "Why Do Our Brains Get Addicted" —the changes in the brain common to obesity and drug addiction—are especially pertinent to the struggles teens face to resist drugs, because adolescence is a crucial period both of susceptibility to the rewards of drugs and of vulnerability to the long-term effects of drug exposure.

Dr. Nora Volkow presenting at TEDMEDDr. Nora Volkow - photo courtesy of Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED

Adolescence is a time of major brain development—particularly the maturation of prefrontal cortical regions involved in self-control and the neural circuits linking these areas to the reward regions. The prefrontal cortex, where we make decisions and comparative judgments about the value of different courses of action, is crucial for regulating our behavior in the face of potential rewards like drugs and food. Adolescents are prone to risky behaviors and impulsive actions that provide instant gratification instead of eventual rewards.  In part, this is because their prefrontal cortex is still a work in progress.

The incomplete maturation of the prefrontal cortex is a major factor in why young people are so susceptible to abusing drugs, including alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and prescription drugs. There are numerous pressures in their lives to try these substances (stress and peers, for example), but inadequate cognitive resources to help them resist. Because their brain architecture is still not fully developed, adolescents’ brains are more susceptible to being radically changed by drug use—often specifically by impeding the development of the very circuits that enable adults to say “later” … or “not at all” … to dangerous or unhealthy options. Thus, when drug abuse begins at a young age, it can become a particularly vicious cycle. Research shows that the earlier a teen first uses drugs, the likelier he or she is to become addicted to them or to become addicted to another substance later in life. It is likely that the same dynamics are at play when it comes to fattening food and the brain’s reaction to it.

Though parents may get frustrated by their teens’ poor decisions at times, they usually forgive them—because on some level adults understand that kids’ internal guidance systems aren’t yet fully functional. People often have a harder time extending that same forgiveness to adults who suffer from addictions or obesity, because we think they should be better able to control their impulses.  But, the fact is that their internal guidance systems, too, are compromised. For such individuals, it is not a question of free choice or just saying no to temptation; in many cases, only externally offered support and treatment can create the conditions in which their guidance systems can be gradually restored to proper working order.

Averting obesity and drug use also requires that, as a society, we take responsibility for the environments we create for young people. Instead of school cafeterias with an array of cheap, tempting foods high in calories and low in nutrients, we must expose young decision makers to food options that strengthen their health and resolve. Instead of stress-filled or empty time that promotes drug use, kids need access to appealing, healthy, and meaningful activities that encourage them to take pride in themselves and their behavior. Arming young people with scientific information about their bodies, brains, and the substances that can affect them is also crucial—which is the goal of National Drug Facts Week.

Obesity and drug abuse are medical issues, not moral failings. It is gratifying to present the converging science clearly showing this in a forum like TEDMED, composed of people who are informed and curious about the latest medical science. My hope is that the general public becomes more compassionate about these issues, supports wider access to treatment, and understands the importance of greater investment in research on the dynamic ways our brain can be changed by our behavior and vice versa.

Follow National Drug Facts Week 2015 news on Twitter @NIDAnews and on Facebook; or join the conversation by using: #DrugFacts.

Read my archived Facebook chat, held Thursday, February 12, 2015 at 1pm ET, hosted by TEDMED to find out what we can learn about compulsive overeating from studying the brain chemistry of people with drug addictions.

This page was last updated January 2015


Averting Drug Use - THC specific

"But, the fact is that their internal guidance systems, too, are compromised. For such individuals, it is not a question of free choice or just saying no to temptation; in many cases, only externally offered support and treatment can create the conditions in which their guidance systems can be gradually restored to proper working order." Also notable, that not only the internal guidance system is compromised, but their environment compromised directly with parents abusing Pain meds and/or marijuana. This societal change makes the adolescent more challenged to go against their family infastructure to even reach out for SA treatment. Fear, the overriding trigger, of being put out on the street for publicing acknowledging the family's drug use. Adolescents choose the "safety" of having a home and become influenced (tempted) by the smell and sight of the drug use.

Actually people are getting fat because of

COMPUTERS! Not to sound too corny here, but think about the tremendous amount of frustration that accompanies the modern technology age, how much time is lost, or wasted in front of computers, often in vain attempts to correct impossible problems,

We should be outside exercising, but not for instance how many times we need to perform repetitive tasks like typing in passords, or code numbers over and over again, Do a backspace and all that info is lost, so start from scratch, I liken their design to folks who may be brilliant in some ways, but lack fundamental common sense, I caught my electrician for instance, who is a professional in his field, bright and competent with years of experience, installing a light switch in a very out of the way place, I'd would have needed a flashlight to go searching for the light switch every time I needed to turn on the light in that room, I suggested to him, "Hey, why not install the light switch next to the door". Response as though this question required some profound thought, "Oh".

With so many websites for instance, crucial to actually operating within the website page, will be certain links, such as say, "Log In", But so often, those links are hidden within a maze of trivial other items so that searching for the basic feature becomes essentially like the game "Find Waldo". The nonsense goes on and on and on,

This equates to tremendous amounts of lost time for nothing, time we could have spent walking or exercising outdoors, In addition, nutrition is a fundamental key to good health and staying fit, but because computers frustrate us so much, and eat up our time, we are eating fast on the go, and we are over-eating non-nutritious foods out of nervousness and mental torment in front of computers, striving in vain so often to get them to behave as intended,

So yeah, nutrition, exercise, proper diet regimens, are at the core of physical fitness, but unfortunately the intended roles have reversed, and we humans are becoming the actual beasts of burden serving modern technology, specifically the computer.

Giving Students Activities

I believe that we need to get activities for teenagers to do outside of school to help with stress and give them something to do in their free time so their addiction chances can get slimmer. Students have stress all day at school starting at a young age, they need an activity to help relieve stress when they are outside of school. School for me was always stressful. I didn’t do very well in high school with my school work because I was sick a lot and the stress of being sick made it worse. But when the school day was over I would just go home and sleep or watch TV. I didn’t have an activity to do when it come around to high school after school. I wasn’t into playing sports, I loved going to see the football games on Friday nights, that helped relieve stress with being with friends and having fun. I was in the fine arts academy with allowed me to have to take photos outside of school but that wasn’t a daily thing. When it came to hanging out with friends on a school night that option wasn’t there in the early years of high school. Giving students who don’t do well in school for whatever reason an activity to do helps with stress, I loved to run and still do it, sometimes when I wasn’t exhausted or doing homework I go running to help my stress go away. I never even thought about doing drugs or drinking while in high school because of what drugs put my family through. I was also busy enough that I didn’t have time to think about it. But not a lot of students have the same experience I had, so they need those activities to give them something to do. We want to lower their chance of getting addicted, and while they are in school they can have options for healthy ways to give them something to do. Students start doing drugs and drinking with my experience when they don’t have things to do outside of school, or a good family situation. Giving the students activities helps them avoid those situations.

Many reasons

there are many reasons why teenager can't fight back the temptation of using drugs. One of these reasons is peer pressure from their friends. But they are many ways how to deal with it. One is, find what triggers your temptation and do the mental hard work of thinking it through to its final consequences.

Teen Drug Treatment

Great post with well written content. Teenage is very sensitive age in which youngsters are addicted to drugs and alcohol. I agree with that general public should be compassionate with them.

Find Help Near You

The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.orgExternal link, please review our disclaimer.. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on our Treatment page.

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    Cite this article

    NIDA. (2015, January 27). Brain in Progress: Why Teens Can’t Always Resist Temptation. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/noras-blog/2015/01/brain-in-progress-why-teens-cant-always-resist-temptation

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