By Robin Jay
Drug abuse can lead to drug addiction – a disease that affects the brain by altering the organ’s functioning and structure. Currently, nearly 20 million people in the United States older than 12 – about 8 percent of the population – are illicit drug users. And while the initial use of drugs is a voluntary choice, it can quickly cause cerebral changes that negatively impact a person’s self-control. Essentially, the brain-reward system becomes haywire and leads the person experiencing drug abuse to seek drugs without regard to the potentially harmful or deadly consequences.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIMH), conducts an ongoing Monitoring the Future survey to watch illicit drug activity among the youth in this country. Their premise is that if you can keep children from experimenting with drugs, they have a much higher chance of avoiding drug abuse as adults.
Recently, NIDA’s Monitoring the Future survey revealed that in the last three years, use of illegal drugs by children in the 8th through 12th grades combined declined by 17 percent. Other positive aspects of the survey showed that tobacco use among children hit rates lower than ever before in the study’s history. And Ecstasy use fell to 4.3 percent (from 5.4 percent) among teenagers in 10th grade.
A drug abuse survey similar to the Monitoring the Future survey is the National Survey on Drug Use and Health that is sponsored through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The SAMHSA-supported NSDUH survey monitors use of drugs among children over the age of 12. It found that more than half (51 percent) of all teenagers in this country use illegal drugs by the time they complete high school. About 30 percent of Americans older than 12 – about 71 million people – use tobacco products. And nearly 15 million Americans 12 or older have tried marijuana. According the NSDUH study, marijuana is the most common drug abused in the United States.
Two additional eye-opening findings of the NSDUH study are related to inhalant and Vicodin use. Inhalant use among children in 8th grade has increased for the second consecutive year to more than 17 percent in that age group. A single use of inhalants can hurt the nervous system and may lead to death. Additionally, high school seniors have made Vicodin one of the most frequently used forms of drug abuse in that age group, with 10 percent of 12th graders reporting the use of Vicodin, and 5 percent reporting the use of OxyContin, a similar prescription medication.
Not just a matter of willpower
For decades, the stigma and shame associated with drug abuse did much to help keep the problem in check. The public thought that use of drugs among youth populations was simply a form of rebellion and that they could, and should, simply adopt good behavior and quit the drug abuse. However, science is proving that drug abuse isn’t simply a matter of someone being morally weak or lacking willpower. The chemical compositions in illicit drugs damage the nerve cells’ ability to process, send and receive communications. The chemicals trick the brain by imitating neurotransmitters (or chemical messengers) and by extreme stimulation of the brain’s reward circuit.
Marijuana and heroin are two examples of illicit drugs that have chemicals that mimic the brain’s natural neurotransmitters and fool the brain into sending corrupt messages. Meanwhile, cocaine and methamphetamine have compounds that lead nerve cells in the brain to disperse unusually large quantities of neurotransmitters that block the normal brain chemical cycle.
Almost every illicit drug overflows the reward system in the brain with a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This particular neurotransmitter is involved in regulating areas of the brain responsible for pleasurable feelings, emotion, motivation and movement.
Another neurotransmitter that can be negatively impacted by the cycle of drug abuse is glutamate. Glutamate also affects the reward center and the brain’s ability to learn. When drug abuse alters this cycle, it can lead to cognitive impairment. This can impact a person’s ability to make sound judgments and decisions, control their behavior and lose memory. When illicit drugs flood areas of the brain with neurotransmitters, the overstimulation results in euphoric responses that coax the person to repeat the drug abuse in order to maintain the pleasurable feelings. After a while, the over-stimulated reward system needs more and more neurotransmitters to cause a euphoric response, taking the person involved with drug abuse deeper into addiction. This is known as an increasing tolerance.
Reversing the grip of drug abuse
Help is available to reverse the reward-center problems caused by drug abuse. The therapeutic treatments developed as a result of the scientific findings of how drug abuse alters the brain and can help people who abuse drugs to overcome their addiction and get back to a normal and productive lifestyle.
Helping people get into treatment and end their addiction not only helps the user and their family regain a more normal lifestyle, it also helps reduce a major societal burden. If you consider the cost of healthcare, crime and lost productivity, drug abuse has a price tag of $181 billion for illegal drugs, $185 billion for alcohol and $168 billion for tobacco. These estimates don’t include the costs related to lost jobs, family divorce, poor school performance and violence in homes, including child abuse.
According to the NIDA, there isn’t a single factor alone that can precisely predict whether a student will develop an addiction to drugs. Age, development, environment and biology are all important factors that play a role in a person’s risk for drug abuse.
NIDA studies show that the best defense against the risk of drug abuse among children is prevention through family interaction, teachers, community programs and responsible media. When children grow up learning that drug use is harmful, they may be less likely to experiment with illicit drugs.
However, for those who do experiment with drugs and fall into the trap of drug abuse and addiction, early treatment is vital for the best possible chance for long-term recovery. Just as with chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension or heart disease, drug addiction is a chronic disease that can be successfully managed and treated with treatment options that are prescribed for the person’s unique needs.
Finding Help for Drug Abuse
For information and resources about treatment options for recovery from addiction, go to Recovery View Treatment Resources at www.recoveryview.com or call 877-900-7326.