The Link Between Early Stress and Drug Abuse May Involve Catecholamines and Delay Discounting
May 20, 2014
Life stress is a predictor of risky behaviors such as drug abuse, and a growing body of research suggests that the link may involve elevated activity of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). A study by researchers at the University of Georgia and Northwestern University found elevated levels of catecholamines (the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine), indicators of SNS activity, in rural African American young adults who, when they were preadolescents, had had family-stress risk factors, specifically parental psychological dysfunction and nonsupportive parenting. Youth participation in a prevention intervention (the Strong African American Families program) moderated this effect of earlier life stress on catecholamines. In a subsequent study, the researchers found that the stress–drug abuse link may be mediated by delay discounting, or the preference for smaller immediate rewards over larger future ones—an indicator of diminished self-control over temptations including drugs and alcohol. Higher catecholamine levels at age 19 (i.e., higher stress) predicted greater drug use a year later in a sample of rural African American young men, specifically if they displayed high (but not low) delay discounting in a questionnaire posing a series of monetary choices.