In the context of pruning and the “use it or lose it” model, addiction is like a pathway. It may start out as a mere amble through the woods, a poorly defined trail, but can end up like a super highway with few exits. Drugs are the vehicles that drive that road, and every new drive makes the road that much stronger. It is life and relationships that become the potholes, but the road is unfortunately too well defined.
When an adolescent is developing a habit of drug using, he or she is positively encouraging the brain to continue learning these behaviors at the expense of other behaviors such as thinking about the future, planning and being patient. Heather Brenhouse and colleagues at McLean Hospital studied adolescent rats and found they formed pernicious addictions more resistant to treatment, have a tougher time quitting drugs, and be more susceptible to relapse once they have quit (Brenhouse, et al, 2008 Patoine, 2007). They propose this use-it or lose-it mechanism explains why human teenagers form a pattern of addiction that literally becomes embedded in the brain while healthy patterns are pushed aside. The use it or lose it paradigm of neuroplasticity is thus both remarkably adaptive and also dauntingly dangerous. This is what Ratey and other neuroscientists have emphasized about brain development, plasticity, and learning: the pathways we exercise are the pathways that, over time, push out the other, less utilized trails. This is could explain the mechanism why alcohol, and nicotine, are gateways to the use of other drugs of addiction for adolescents. (AMA, H30. 958).
The impact of adolescent drug abuse reverberates throughout our culture. However, the promise of plasticity holds opportunity, and should drive the design of a treatment approach. By capitalizing on the science of adolescence, troubled teens can phase out of this problem while gaining new insight to carry them through future challenges life may throw at them. Working with adolescents is a gift. It is an honor and a privilege to work with these young people and their families, to be part of their path to overcome their challenges, to be privy to their lives at such a time of need, and to enjoy the pleasure of knowing that we are adding value to the world, one kid at a time.
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