By Peter Killian
If a young teen begins a pattern of drug abuse that lasts for several years, what will the consequences be?
The average teenager is usually desperate to grow up and be recognised as a young adult and would laugh at the suggestion that he or she could choose to remain permanently in an adolescent state. Yet thousands of teens unknowingly go this route every year. It's surprisingly easy to stunt your emotional growth and retain the mental outlook of, say, a fifteen-year old. The magic potion that can freeze personal growth may cost as little as 3 US Dollars and can easily be obtained from a nearby drug dealer. Weed, ecstasy, crystal meth, cocaine, crack, heroin, and many more - including alcohol -are all very effective products for achieving a terrible parody of youth.
What is the long-term effect of substance abuse on the young mind?
We know that drugs alter the chemical reactions in the brain and destroy its finely tuned balance and that this can result in changes in personality, memory and mood. Changes in the brain structure of an addict can be seen clearly - synapses lose their connections, brain cells and neurons change size and shape. Scans of brain activity in cocaine users have shown reduced metabolic activity compared to a normal brain. We also know that drug use reduces the levels of dopamine in the brain, thereby altering the body's natural responses to pleasure and triggering the cycle of addiction to artificial "highs". What is less well known is the permanent damage that can result from sustained abuse. While the effects of such damage are routinely witnessed at drug rehab centres, the scientific evidence of such damage has only begun to emerge during the past decade.
For instance, teens who drink a lot have a smaller prefrontal cortex than those who do not. This is the part of the brain responsible for judgment, planning ahead and critical thinking. If your prefrontal cortex is damaged you will become more impulsive, have poor judgement and poor decision-making skills and you might not be able to learn as well as other people. Other studies have shown that habitual drug users have reduced cognitive functioning (such as acquiring knowledge or applying reason), less brain activity during memory tasks and a shrinkage of 10-35% of the Hippocampus (where memory is lodged,) as well as shrinkage of deeper areas of the brain including the cerebellum which controls coordination and balance.
Then there's the problem of what one research group has termed "Arrested Development", which is that drug use can cripple the emotional and intellectual development that should take place as teenagers grow to adulthood. The human brain continues to mature up to the age of 24-25 years. While the basic structure of the brain is usually established by the age of about 12 years, the development of the frontal lobe and the refinement of pathways and connections continues for another 10 to 15 years. Indeed, the region responsible for things such as impulse control and moral judgment is the last to mature. The conclusion is that when drugs interfere with the dynamic development of the brain that takes place during adolescence, this will have a devastating effect on a young person's mental, emotional, cognitive and social development - and permanently alter his or her potential for success.
For recovering addicts the result of all this is usually a degree of mental impairment which may even be severe and permanent. A typical scenario is that of a young adult in his or her early 20s who is in recovery from addiction after, for example, 8 to 10 years of drug use. Once such addicts have recovered from the initial detox programme and are ready to take charge of their lives, they will discover that their frontal lobe development has been impaired. They are still stuck in the adolescent time of excessive mood swings, poor judgement and difficulty with problem solving. They will be prone to risky behaviour, and prefer activities that offer high excitement with low effort. They will struggle to concentrate for any length of time and their memory will be impaired. Their coordination will be poor and their reaction times slow. They will not have the patience to persevere in the pursuit of long-term goals. Learning anything new will be difficult and seem impossibly hard to do. They will certainly have low self-esteem and be very afraid of having to cope in the real world. They will seem immature in comparison with others of their age and this will make it difficult for them to make friends or to develop stable relationships within their peer group. This is a terrible predicament to be in at what should be a vital and positive time of one's life. Just when they are finally clean and free from addiction, they are faced with what can be crippling emotional and intellectual challenges.
To save our children from such a fate is possibly the most compelling reason for ensuring that they get drug prevention information from an early age and that those who need help get it as soon as possible. Sources: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime; National Institute on Drug Abuse (US); National Institute of Neurological Disorders (US)
This is the stark truth that every child needs to know:
Drug abuse can cause brain damage. It may not be apparent at first when you are in the early stages of drug use and you still think it's a fun, cool thing to do or you think that it's helping you to cope with your problems. But the deterioration in your ability to use your brain will become very apparent to family and friends over time once you become addicted. Tragically, you will not realise this yourself, because your brain cells will be too fried for you to notice. What you will notice once you have been sucked into the horror world of addiction, is that you constantly feel afraid, angry or depressed, that life is joyless and drab, that you feel suicidal, that you are often involved in violent or ugly incidents, and that it's all the fault of the rest of the world - they're all out to get you. It's a lonely, isolated, dangerous and hopeless world.