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Adolescent Brain Development and Addiction

In November 2018, tens of thousands of people descended upon San Diego to get the inside scoop from some of the superstars in their field.

No, it was not ComiCon. It was Neuroscience 2018, which featured dozens of presentations that revealed the results of cutting-edge research into the human brain. Hosted by the Society for Neuroscience, the event drew about 30,000 people for the 48th annual meeting of the organization, whose members hail from more than 90 countries.

Some of the research presented at Neuroscience 2018 focused on the development of the adolescent brain and how it relates to mental illness, puberty and substance abuse. Here are three studies presented at the convention which stood out.

A Gene Variation May Predict Overuse of Drugs or Alcohol

Researchers from Georgetown University Medical Center scrutinized a specific opioid receptor gene variant to see how it impacts the brain’s reward-evaluation mechanisms in adolescents. The so-called “G-variant” was targeted because other studies have linked it with substance misuse; teens who suffer from an alcohol use disorder are three times as likely to have the G-variant.

The Georgetown study instructed 115 adolescents ages 11 to 13 to play a computerized gambling game while researchers studied MRI scans of their brains to see how the children responded to the rewards of winning money. The scientists concluded that the G-variant correlates with a reduced neural response to rewards, which implies that these kids might have to overindulge in certain activities, like drug or alcohol consumption, to feel as rewarded as their peers without the G-variant.

Teen Brain Development May Indicate Depression or Anxiety

Another study focused on the habenula, a nucleus that borders the brain’s thalamus and is thought to play a pivotal role in major depressive disorder. A hyperactive habenula is associated with increased symptoms of anxiety, depression and anhedonia (or pleasure reduction).

A team of neuroscientists led by Dr. Benjamin Ely from the medical school at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York studied 49 adolescents who were diagnosed with mental disorders. They found increased pathway connectivity in the subjects’ brains between the habenula and other neural regions which impact reward signaling. Since these pathways develop around the same time as many mental illnesses tend to emerge, increased connectivity is thought to correlate with more severe anxiety or anhedonia in adolescence, which in turn increases the risk of teen substance misuse.

Childhood Trauma’s Impact on Adolescent Substance Misuse

Finally, some scientists from the University of California San Diego showcased an ongoing study that seeked to link childhood trauma with a heightened risk of alcohol or substance misuse during adolescence. Their approach involved examining two regions of the brain that separate from one another during adolescence to form a mature cognitive control network.

Woman daydreaming

After examining almost 400 adolescents who endured varying levels of childhood trauma, the researchers noted in their preliminary findings that the greater the severity of the trauma, the more the separation of these brain regions is hampered and the slower the maturation of the cognitive control network proceeds. The scientists hypothesize that this hindered process will also correlate with increased frequency of binge drinking and may help clarify how this area of brain development contributes to the higher likelihood of alcohol or substance misuse.

Of course, none of these studies represent a spectacular breakthrough in the understanding of the adolescent brain or the probability of substance use disorders in teenagers. Future studies may be able to build on this research, and eventually, the results may lead to improvements in the formulation and execution of addiction treatment for teens. After all, the more we know about how teenagers’ brains develop, the easier it will be to predict and treat the disease of addiction before they reach adulthood.

Substance misuse during adolescence can lead to substantial problems and deficits in adulthood because a teenager’s brain is still developing. If your teen is experimenting with alcohol or drugs, contact Next Generation Village to get more information about teen addiction and treatment.

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