Pot and Alcohol Hurt Teen Brains Even More Than We Thought

Pot and Alcohol Hurt Teen Brains Even More Than We Thought

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This post was originally published on August 27, 2014.

We’ve all heard the saying that children are the future. That may well be true, but when it comes to addiction, that aphorism doesn’t sound quite as bright—at least, that’s what recent studies about teenage minds under the influence of marijuana and alcohol have shown. Still, halting the use of the two drugs is two slightly different battles.

The big recent discussion in America concerning marijuana use is focused on whether or not it should be fully legalized. Wherever citizens fall on the issue of its relative harm, this presents a thorny problem for anti-drug advocates.

The Consequence of No Consequence

In a New York Times article, Tim Ryan, an addiction specialist from the anti-drug group FCD Educational Services, said teens “are growing up in a generation where marijuana used to be bad, and maybe now it’s not bad.” After polling teenagers on reasons they would stay away from drugs, the main ones listed were that they could get in trouble with the law and that they might disappoint their parents. The issue that concerned Ryan is what taking away that first deterrent could do to teenage minds, given recently discovered effects of early onset smoking habits.

Data shows that 44% of teenagers have tried weed at least once, one in four had smoked in the last month and 7% were frequent smokers. These stats may not be entirely surprising, but they’re a concern in light of recent findings that smoking weed in the early teens resulted in later loss of IQ points in later teen years. More frightening is that of all adult addicts in America, 90% of them got started in their teens.

It’s Still Bad for your Health, Kids

As a result of this information, the new focus for deterring teens is to highlight the fact that teen drug and alcohol use isn’t a legal or moral issue but a health issue. The new approach is not the outdated “Just Say No”; instead it’s more of a “Just Say No For Now.” Studies show that even for kids who got started drinking and doing drugs in their teens, those who started after age 16 had fewer detrimental health effects than the ones who began before.

When it comes to alcohol, data has long been more conclusive when it comes to how damaging alcohol can be to young brains. Still, a recent, first-of-its-kind study from the Saban Research Institute of the Children’s Hospital of LA showed that mothers that drink though their pregnancy create even more long-lasting damage than we previously thought.

Dr. Elizabeth Sowell, the study’s senior author, expounded on the results in an article from The Telegraph: “There were significant differences in development of brain activation over time between the two groups…while the healthy control group showed an increase in signal intensity over time, the children with FASD showed a decrease in brain activation during visuospatial attention.”

The study showed that children with fetal alcohol syndrome had slowed development of general brain function even as far as the late teenage years, specifically in their memory and attention; typically, childhood and adolescence are marked by sharp improvements in all of those functions.

Only Time Will Tell

While it might be impossible to completely dissuade young people (or their mothers) from partaking in these risky behaviors, new information is at least shifting the focus of the anti-drug into less disputable territory. We’ll see if the anti-marijuana campaign continues to steer teens away from drugs but one thing is for certain: it’s now backed up with more hard data.

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Ryan Aliapoulios

Ryan Aliapoulios is an author and screenwriter. He is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan.