Experts explore teen addiction at seminar

Adolescent brains more vulnerable, OHSU doctor says

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter



About 5 percent of Clark County sixth-graders have drunk alcohol. But by the time those same kids reach eighth grade, that percentage jumps to 20 percent, according to the statewide Healthy Youth Survey.

About 150 people attending a Thursday morning seminar about adolescent addiction learned that the substantial increase can at least partly be attributed to the teenage brain.

Dr. Bonnie Nagel, an assistant professor at Oregon Health and Science University and adolescent addiction researcher, explained how the young, developing brain of a teenager is vulnerable to alcohol and drug addiction. The audience included medical professionals, treatment providers, educators and community members. The seminar, which also included a panel with local professionals, was sponsored by Daybreak Youth Services and Leadership Clark County.

The part of the brain that recognizes reward and emotion is triggered by the start of puberty. When that happens, adolescents experience an increase in emotionality and begin seeking the reward sensation, Nagel said.

The problem, she said, is the part of the brain that is responsible for judgment and reasoning builds slowly with age and experience, usually into the early 20s.

As a result, adolescents often use the emotional and reward areas of their brain, rather than the reasoning areas, to process information and make decisions, Nagel said. In addition, when kids are in “hot” situations where emotions are running high, they’re even less likely to use reasoning, she said.

“That means increased risk for developing mood disorders and substance abuse,” Nagel said.

Alcohol and marijuana are the most commonly used substances among adolescents. Alcohol affects teenagers’ ability to remember and recall information, even after they’ve stopped using. Marijuana use, even after 28 days of abstinence, causes impairments in attention, memory and executive functioning, which regulates behavior.

Risk factors can play a role in whether an adolescent will move from recreational use to substance use disorders. Those risk factors include first use at a young age, sensation-seeking personalities, externalizing disorders (such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), low-level response to alcohol, and family history of substance abuse, Nagel said.

Local professionals see those risk factors in adolescents they encounter at schools, treatment facilities and in the courtroom.

At Daybreak Youth Services, up to 60 percent of teens receiving outpatient treatment started using drugs and alcohol before the age of 14. Among those in Daybreak’s more extensive inpatient program, up to 80 percent report their first use was before age 14, said Daybreak Executive Director Tim Smith, who was a panelist at the event.

Clark County Court Commissioner Carin Schienberg, another panelist, said she sees many adolescents in the county’s juvenile recovery court and family treatment court who are second or third generation substance abusers. Carolyn Newman, an intervention specialist with Evergreen Public Schools, said kids don’t understand the impacts drugs and alcohol have on the brain.

The good news is brains are somewhat “plastic” and are capable of changing and, to an extent, recovering, Nagel said.

Research in adults found that treatment therapies can alter the brain and restore brain systems. Similar research hasn’t been conducted among teens, but Nagel suspects the still-developing adolescent brains would be even more responsive to therapies.

“My hope is intervention of the at-risk brains can alter those brains in such a way that they won’t go on to use,” Nagel said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546;;;