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Is Science Able To Predict Teen Drug Abuse?

March 10, 2017

Is Science Able to Predict Teen Drug Abuse

When it comes to the possibility of teen drug use and abuse, perhaps one of the most frustrating thing for parents is that there is no way to predict whether or not your teen will become involved with substance use or dependance. Indicators can vary and the abuse can very often be hidden. Previous blog posts on the Teen Treatment Center site discussed how any teen might experiment with substances and even good academic performance isn't always a sign that everything is okay. 

While medical and therapy professionals have long been able to point to some signs of teen drug use, they haven't had the diagnostic ability to predict the likelihood of drug use with any type of accuracy. Historically, psychologists have seen that children and teens who score high on tests that measure novelty-seeking tendencies are slightly more likely on average to try alcohol or drugs. That seems like a common-sense conclusion, but in reality, the predictor was only accurate about 55 percent of the time, which is roughly the equivalent of flipping a coin on whether or not your child will abuse drugs.

The Monetary Incentive Delay Task

Two professionals in the industry believe they might have found a better path for predicting teen drug abuse. Stanford psychology professor Brian Knutson and Christian Büchel, a professor of medicine in Europe, worked together to study data related to the Monetary Incentive Delay Task that was given to around a thousand 14-year-old participants.

The Monetary Incentive Delay Task, or MID, is a task that Knutson developed to study the role of the brain in mentally processing positive rewards, including things such as the high offered by certain substances or even the provision of money. During the task, the subject lies in an MRI machine and his or her brain activity is scanned. At the same time, the participant plays a game designed to kick off the brain's natural response to reward scenarios. As that activity occurs in each brain, the MRI process captures it.

What does the MID tell us about teen drug use?

Medical experts know that teen brains are less responsive, in general, to reward stimuli when drugs or alcohol are in the mix, but why this is the case isn't completely understood. Does the reduction in response come from the use of drugs, or was it already there to begin with? In other words, are kids with a reduced reward responses more likely to engage in drug or alcohol abuse?

Because Büchel captured MID data for the thousand 14-year-olds previously and his team followed up to track whether those teens later engaged in drug use, the researchers could draw some conclusions. Specifically, Büchel 's team identified 144 teens who did not have drug use problems at the time they took the MID but did score within the top 25 percent for novelty seeking behavior. The question was: were these teens more likely than their peers to engage in drug use later?

An in-depth analysis of the data by Knutson and Büchel allowed them to predict teen substance abuse accurately about two-thirds, or 67 percent, of the time. While it's not perfect, that's a large improvement from the 50/50 coin toss. According to Knutson, this breakthrough is just a beginning for researchers in the niche, who can now build on this discovery to create better predictability. The goal, Knutson says, is to eventually be able to predict teen drug use with enough accuracy that doctors can stop some substance abuse problems before they start via early counseling or treating root causes before they drive a teen to drugs.

Parents still have to stay vigilant about teen drug use

While the MID study is encouraging, it's a single study that has to be repeated, and scientists and researchers have a long way to go before the information can be put into action in a practical setting. In the meantime, parents must remain vigilant and continue to take action to protect children from the effects of drug and alcohol use.

Start talking about drugs and alcohol in appropriate ways at an early age so they aren't an exciting mystery to your preteen or teen later. Reducing the novelty of drugs and alcohol can reduce the chance a teen experiments with them.

If your child does seem to regularly seek out novelty experiences or risk-taking opportunities, offer healthier alternatives such as sports, hobbies, hiking or family exploration.

As a parent, make sure you understand what is going on with drugs and alcohol today; knowing what is popular, where and how teens access drugs and what teen drug addiction might look like puts you in a better position to help your teen if a substance abuse disorder occurs.

Regardless of whether you ever thought your teen was at high risk of drug or alcohol use or addiction, if you suspect they are struggling with such issues now, reach out for help. You can call The Teen Treatment Center anytime to talk to a caring, supportive admissions counselor about options for helping your teen.  (844)319-5239.

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