Trying to discern who will suffer from substance use disorder and who will not is an extremely difficult task. There is no exact science to it, and looking at genealogy, which is usually a good indicator, or psychosocial influences is no guarantee. Some people who grow up in an environment with parents who suffer from substance use disorder will become afflicted with addiction, while others will not. What exactly causes one person to become addicted while another does not is unknown still, but just because we are unable to determine the exact outcome does not mean that preventative measures cannot be put in place.
The importance of prevention in the treatment of substance use disorders has become more apparent over the past few years, especially among at risk teen populations. This is not to say that prevention was not always looked at as important, but in all honesty the general consensus for many years was that not much could be done before an addict wanted to get help and there was no way of telling who would have issues with substance abuse until after they already started using. We were aware of certain characteristics that would make a teen more at risk to suffer from substance use disorder than their peers but implementing an actual prevention plan many times lay outside out the school, parents, or mental health professionals ability. They either lacked the funding, know how, or parental approve to try to help steer these at kids away from a life of addiction and towards services that could save them years of pain.
However, a recent paper published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism may offer a solution to the problem faced by those attempting to implement preventative measures for at risk teens and may be the basis for a screening process to better help diagnosis addiction before its onset.
The study found that there are 3 key components of the brain that are shared by most people who suffer from alcoholism or addiction. Theses three components affect the relationship that addicts and alcoholics have to drugs and alcoholic and may represent why they react differently to substances then the average person. The three components have to do with the executive motor function of the brain, incentive salience, and negative emotionality.
First, the study found that among people who suffer from substance abuse disorder, or have the potential to suffer from substance abuse disorder, the way that their executive motor function operates in the brain is different from that of people who do not suffer from substance abuse disorder. The executive motor function oversees things like inhibitory controls, reasoning, problem solving, memory, and among people who suffer from substance abuse disorders, their executive motor function does not operate normally. It was found that their ability to reason when faced with decisions like should I go get high again after just overdosing was non-existent, and while this may not be news to people who suffer from addiction, finding the reason behind this is very important in how we treat addiction moving forward.
Second, the study found that people who are at risk for suffering from substance use disorder have brains that put more emphasis on partaking in behaviors that result in reward than those of a normal brain. The research found that the reason for this has to do with incentive salience, which is a desire trait, that is assigned by the brain, in particular the nucleus accumbens shell. Those who suffer or could suffer from substance use disorder will have a mind that will place the pursuit of pleasure or reward above everything else, even survival. Which is interesting because it has long been understood that addicts and alcoholics will seek out substances even when it has become apparent that to do will result in their death, but the actual reason for this, beyond just having a compulsion was never understood.
Lastly, the study found that people who are at risk to suffer from addiction or alcoholism are more apt to experience negative emotionality. This means that they are more likely to experience a negative emotion from stimuli than people who do not have a brain that is hardwired for substance use disorder. Breaking the cycle of being addicted to not only substances but also negative thoughts is a significant challenge in sobriety.They are more likely to give into cravings then other people because they do not have a positive emotion or thought process to help offset their desire to use and people with substance abuse disorder are more likely to suffer from anger, depression when they are stimulated, regardless of what the stimuli is.
If we were able to take this new information into account and also take a look at the teen’s family life; how their genes may be contributing to their risk factor, and how their environment may be conducive to promoting substance abuse, we should be able to create a fairly comprehensive screening process for teens in order to see if they are at risk for becoming addicts or alcoholics. Granted this last part is difficult because many times families, in particular children, do not discuss whether or not they have a parent that suffers from substance abuse disorder, but it is at least a start and at least something to move towards.
While there is still a lot that we do not know about substance abuse disorders, our understanding has grown so much over the past 20 years that we should be able to better screen for this sort of thing. We won’t be able to save every kid, because that is just the nature of things, but if we could even help prevent one tragedy it would be well worth the effort.
Rose Lockinger is passionate member of the recovery community. A rebel who found her cause, she uses blogging and social media to raise the awareness about the disease of addiction. She has visited all over North and South America. Single mom to two beautiful children she has learned parenting is without a doubt the most rewarding job in the world. Currently the Outreach Director at Stodzy Internet Marketing.