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Scientists Study How Alcohol and Cannabis Affect Adolescent Brain Responses

Scientists at the Center for Neurobehavioral Research at Boys Town National Research Hospital are studying the effects of alcohol and cannabis on the brains of youth using MRI technology.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), three out of five high school students say they have had a drink within the past 30 days, and 23% of high school students say they have used marijuana within the last month.

Executive attention and response control are critical for impulse control. Both rely on regions at the front of the brain like dorsolateral and dorsomedial frontal cortex regions. A recent Boys Town study has indicated that adolescents reporting more abuse symptoms, particularly those associated with alcohol, show problems using these brain areas during response control. Scientists note that if these regions aren't working well, an individual is less likely to control his/her impulses and may be more likely to abuse substances in the future. In addition, behavior generally becomes more impulsive.

The findings are important for the following reasons:

  1. They show that substance abuse in adolescents is associated with demonstrable brain-level difficulties which may require intervention to improve function.
  2. The findings reinforce the importance of considering a person's substance abuse history. Brain-level difficulties associated with alcohol abuse may require specific intervention strategies.
  3. The data suggest that additional imaging may assess abuse treatment success, not only by abstinence, but also by determining whether these brain-level difficulties have been lessened.

"The study is a first step in our goal to improve the care of children with substance abuse," said James Blair, Ph.D., director of the Boys Town Center for Neurobehavioral Research. "By better understanding how substance abuse affects brain function, Boys Town scientists can develop better interventions and treatments to help more children."

Boys Town Center for Neurobehavioral Research

The Center for Neurobehavioral Research, led by James Blair, Ph.D., Susan and George Haddix Endowed Chair, was created to better understand what is physically and biologically happening in the brain of a troubled child and to help develop more effective ways to treat children with behavioral and mental health problems. Boys Town offers a unique environment with access to cutting-edge neuroscientific techniques at Boys Town National Research Hospital and a population of youth facing neurobehavioral difficulties.