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Understanding Brain Responses of Alcohol and Cannabis Abuse Disorders in Adolescents

Across the country, many adolescents struggle with alcohol and cannabis abuse. While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notes that alcohol use among teens is decreasing, still 3 out of 5 high school students have reported having a drink within the past 30 days, and 23% of high school seniors have used marijuana within the last month. Brain-imaging work by scientists at Boys Town Center for Neurobehavioral Research indicate that abuse of alcohol and cannabis can have lasting negative effects on a child’s or teen’s brain development.

Executive attention and response control are critical for impulse control.  They rely on regions at the front of the brain like dorsolateral frontal cortex and dorsomedial frontal cortex.  A recent study at Boys Town National Research Hospital shows a difference in function in these regions among youth with alcohol and cannabis substance abuse disorders. This study published in Neuroimage Clinical, titled, "Adolescents show differential dysfunctions related to Alcohol and Cannabis Use Disorder severity in emotion and executive attention neuro-circuitries." Adolescents reporting more severe substance abuse disorder symptoms, particularly those associated with alcohol abuse, show problems using these brain areas during response control.  This likely leads to further difficulties.  If these regions are not working well, an individual is less likely to control his/her impulses and may be more likely to abuse substances in the future. Behavior also generally becomes more impulsive.

Joseph Aloi, Ph.D., a research student at the Boys Town Center for Neurobehavioral Research, led the study that investigated the brain's executive attention and response control systems in youth with varying levels of alcohol and cannabis use problems.  The study used an MRI machine to measure youths' brain responses during a type of response control task and then related this information to their levels of alcohol and cannabis problems. 

The findings from the study are important for several reasons.  First, they show that substance abuse problems in adolescents are associated with demonstrable brain level-difficulties, which may require intervention to improve function.  Second, the findings reinforce the importance of considering a person's substance abuse history.  Brain-level difficulties associated with alcohol abuse disorder may require specific intervention strategies.  Third, the data suggests that we might assess substance abuse treatment success, not only by abstinence, but also whether these brain-level difficulties have been reduced.

This work is a first step in our goal to improve the care of children with substance abuse. By better understanding how substance abuse affects brain function, Boys Town scientists can develop better interventions and treatments to help more children.  To follow the progress of this work, please see our website at boystownhospital.org/research.