Teenagers who find themselves addicted to drugs or alcohol are pre-wired to act on impulses.
A new study at the University of Vermont reviewed brain scans of nearly 1,900 14-year-olds, and identified the parts of the brain that fire when controlling behavior. Each of the test subjects were given a task that involved pressing a button when shown an arrow pointing left or right, but were told to not press the button if the arrow was pointing up.
Researchers found that there was a pattern of brain activity in the teens that reportedly had indicated they had tried alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. Those teens showed a distinctly different pattern of activity in the orbital frontal cortex of their brains, indicating that their impulsive substance abuse may be part of their biology.
“These [brain] networks are not working as well for some kids as they are for others,” said Dr. Robert Whelan, lead researcher for the study.
According to ABC News, the study also showed the same brain pattern in teens with poor impulse control that claimed to never have tried alcohol or drugs, which indicated a possibility of intercepting kids at risk of substance abuse and offering counseling.
The study also showed a specific brain pattern for teens with ADHD, but while the two groups shared poor impulse control, the patterns for the ADHD teens were different.
“This suggests that these two conditions may be unnecessarily tightly coupled together,” Whelan said. “The fact that we found there were different networks lends credence to the argument that ADHD and substance abuse are not so tightly coupled.”
Dr. Lukshmi Puttanniah, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, agrees, and said the study indicates that poor impulse control may be due to a number of different factors.
“Some people thought that whatever neurobiological pathway that underlies it is common between ADHD and substance abuse,” Puttanniah told US News and World Report. “But what this study shows is the neurobiological pathways underlying the impulsivity of ADHD and substance use disorders are actually distinct.”
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