The news about teenage drug abuse is not shocking. We’ve known for years that trauma and substance abuse are linked. A quick look at the stats tells us that much.
- 70 percent of people receiving treatment for drug or alcohol abuse reported a history of trauma.
- People with five or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are seven to 10 times more likely to become substance abusers.
- Nearly 66 percent of IV drug users report abusive and traumatic childhood events.
But what exactly is going on with these individuals? How does this pattern develop? Researchers wondered if brain activity and development play a factor.
So, they conducted a study.
Trauma and the ACC
The human brain is a complex organ. It’s made up of many regions. And each of those regions plays a different role in our thinking and actions.
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is one of those regions.
The ACC is involved in impulse control, empathy-related responses, and socially-driven interactions. It also helps control two key decision-making processes: outcome monitoring and error detection.
Scientists wondered if the ACC in brains of traumatized children function differently. And if this might affect their tendency toward substance abuse. What they discovered was eye-opening.
Dr. Nicole Fava and colleagues from Florida International University and the University of Michigan examined brain imaging data of children who had experienced ACEs. They found that childhood adversity is linked with altered ACC activity. And this activity is linked with both “behavior problems in early adolescence and substance use in late adolescence.”
3 Steps to Substance Abuse
Researchers looked at 465 adolescents for the study. They examined events during three stages of the children’s lives:
- ACEs from ages three to 11
- Externalizing behavior (aggression, delinquency) at ages 12 to 14
- Substance use at ages 15 to 17
Researchers confirmed that kids who experienced trauma (physical abuse, parent-on-parent violence, poverty) at stage one were more likely to show aggression or delinquency at stage two. This, in turn, predicted greater risk of teenage drug abuse at stage three.
The results confirmed that childhood trauma and adversity “increased the risk of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use in adolescence.”
But that’s not all. The brain scans picked up reduced activation of the ACC. Children who experienced ACEs had lower ACC activity when they failed a study task.
What Does Teenage Drug Abuse Look Like?
Shawn, who experienced childhood trauma, makes a mistake on his study task. His brain’s ACC is supposed to kick in and detect the error. The ACC should help him make a different decision in the future.
But it doesn’t.
Dylan, who has not experienced any ACEs, makes the same mistake. His ACC activates. The next time he completes that task, he gets it right.
In other words, after making an error, the ACC of traumatized kids did not activate as it normally should. Researchers suspect that this lack of “error monitoring” by the ACC may prevent the kids from learning from their mistakes.
This impairment, researchers noted, leads to an increased risk of externalizing behavior as adolescents. This also leads to greater risk of substance abuse.
Dr. Fava explains, “If certain youth are not learning from their mistakes, and if we think about mistakes as being synonymous with risky behaviors—or in this case, substance use—then youth will keep using substances in the future until they are able to learn from their mistakes.”
New Strategies to Combat Teenage Drug Abuse
So…why does any of this matter? Researchers point out that their findings may be able to improve prevention and treatment strategies for adolescent substance abuse. How? By taking brain activity into consideration.
They suggest basing interventions on both brain activity and behavioral observations. Integrating the two may strengthen the methods and make them more successful.
Dr. Fava says, “It may be more effective to consider the impact of trauma when planning interventions—using techniques such as mindfulness, neurofeedback techniques, and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, to name a few—to help adolescents discontinue substance use.”
Article source: www.addictions.com