Healthy Brains Are Helping Kids Say No to Drugs

Parents these days spend a lot of time wondering how to keep their kids off drugs, but one key characteristic in the fight against this problematic behavior is out of their control. Believe it or not, the strength of a child’s working memory might hold the key to life without drugs and alcohol.

What’s in a Memory?

A new study set to be published in the journal Development and Psychopathology found that kids with a strong working memory have a greater chance of avoiding problematic drug abuse. The project was lead by Atika Khurana, a professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services at the University of Oregon. She and a host of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia collected data from 382 adolescents between the ages of 11 and 13, focusing on their alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use.

In addition to self-reporting their drug use during the previous month, each of the adolescents also completed four memory tests. Khurana and her team found that the kids without a strong working memory, which is associated with the prefrontal region of the brain, were more likely to fall victim to dangerous and impulsive tendencies.

Paying Attention Might Equal Sobriety

According to Khurana, when we pay greater executive attention, we are less impulsive in our own decisions. That’s because we are focused and able to control impulses that are influenced or generated by our surroundings.

"What we found is that if teens are performing poorly on working memory tasks that tap into executive attention, they are more likely to engage in impulsive drug-use behaviors."-Atika Khurana

“What we found is that if teens are performing poorly on working memory tasks that tap into executive attention, they are more likely to engage in impulsive drug-use behaviors. We need to compensate for the weakness that exists, before drug experimentation starts to help prevent the negative spiral of drug abuse,” said Khurana.

Khurana suggests that this ability in working memory can even be strengthened through early intervention. For young children, she recommends a structured environment and cognitive stimulation in a strong and loving family atmosphere, while adolescents could benefit from activities centered on social competence and problem-solving skills.

Good News for Parents

Parents enjoyed a bit of welcome news last month after the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) released a survey detailing a decline in drug use among teenagers. Using data from 70,000 people over the age of 12, the findings showed that teen drug use dropped from 8.9 percent to 5.2 percent between 2012 and 2013.

And the good news didn't stop there. Tobacco use among teens also plummeted from 15 percent to 8 percent, while minor reductions were also seen in rates of binge drinking, general alcohol use and driving under the influence.

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of addiction

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