There is some exciting new research from the University of Oregon that shows a relationship between teens with high functioning attention skills and avoidance of early drug experimentation. Having a strong ability to focus on tasks and avoid distractions are traits of a strong working memory. These traits help teenagers reach their goals while avoiding substance abuse issues.
This research was led by Atika Khurana. She is a professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services at the University of Oregon. The researchers collaborated with others from the University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The investigators looked deeply into findings from a long term study of mostly at-risk urban teens. These 382 adolescents were questioned about early use of marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol. While previous studies of this kind relied on adults remembering their experimentation during their teenage years, this research focused mainly on 11 to 13-year-old children. It looked to study these teenager's behaviors as they began to explore risky and thrill-seeking experiences in order to see if early drug use was a marker for adulthood substance abuse problems.
Professor Khurana stated that “Not all forms of early drug use are problematic,” and that “There could be some individuals who start early, experiment, and then stop. And there are some who could start early and go on into a progressive trajectory of continued drug use. We wanted to know what separates the two.”
The study's participants were assessed four times. Each time they were to provide a report of their drug use within the past 30 days. They were also exposed to a working memory test. These working memory tests included Corsi block tapping, a digit-span test, a letter two-back test and a spatial working-memory test. Here is a description of each:
- Corsi Block Tapping - Subjects view identical blocks that light up randomly on a screen and tap each box in reverse order of the lighting sequence.
- Digit-Span Test - Numbers are shown in a specific order and then subjects repeat these numbers in reverse order.
- Letter Two-Back Test - Subjects must identify specific letters in time-sensitive sequences.
- Spatial Working-Memory Test - Subjects must quickly find hidden tokens within sets of four to eight randomly positioned boxes on a computer screen.
The researchers found that young people that experimented with drugs that also had impulsive tendencies and weak working memory capabilities were more likely to suffer from progressive drug use later on.
Professor Khurana said that these “Later assessments of the participants, who have now reached late adolescence, are being analyzed, but it appears that the compulsive progression, not just the experimentation, of drug use is likely to lead to disorder” and that “Prefrontal regions of the brain can apply the brakes or exert top-down control over impulsive, or reward-seeking urges.”
She then stated “By its nature, greater executive attention enables one to be less impulsive in one’s decisions and actions because you are focused and able to control impulses generated by events around you. What we found is that if teens are performing poorly on working memory tasks that tap into executive attention, they are more likely to engage in impulsive drug-use behaviors. The findings suggest new approaches for early intervention since weaknesses in executive functioning often underly self-control issues in children as young as three years old,” and that “A family environment strong in structured routines and cognitive stimulation could strengthen working memory skills.”
From this research, we now know that interventions for older children should be focused around activities that encourage social competence and problem-solving skills, combined with cognition-building tasks that reinforces self-control and builds working memory. These activities will help teens develop an understanding of actions and consequences from their decisions. Finally, Professor Khurana said, “We need to compensate for the weakness that exists, before drug experimentation starts, to help prevent the negative spiral of drug abuse.”
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