NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse
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A Summer at NIDA!

My name is Giselle and I’m from the enchanting island of Puerto Rico. This summer I’m doing an internship at the Office of Science Policy and Communications, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). I won’t have pristine beaches to visit, but while I’m here at the Neuroscience Center in Rockville, Maryland, I’m looking forward to learning about the science behind the brain, drug abuse, my body, and a lot more! I’m hoping to write a couple of blog posts about this so stay tuned. And by the way, cool scientists are blogging too!

Have you already visited all the sections of the NIDA Web site? If not, you should! It feels great when you know how your body works. Start learning!

This is a guest SBB post from NIDA intern Giselle.

A lady walking down a city street.

National Drug Facts Week Starts Today!

This week begins NIDA’s annual National Drug Facts Week. Around the country, more than 500 schools and community groups will hold events to talk with teens about drugs—focusing on the facts.

We at NIDA have studied the science behind drug abuse and addiction for nearly 40 years, and one thing we know for certain: A lot of myths are out there about different kinds of drugs. Some of these myths are spread by the media, movies, and popular music, or by friends who have simply heard the wrong information. We want teens to know the scientific facts so they can make healthy choices about their lives.

To find out if an event is planned near you, visit the National Drug Facts Week Web site, and then click on the USA map. Please take a minute to explore the site and see what the week is all about.

Teens participating in a National Drug Facts Week event

Teens from schools in the Washington, DC, area gather around music star Mario at a National Drug Facts Week event sponsored by the Mentor Foundation (2011).

Group of teens at a National Drug Facts Week event

We <3 Brains

What’s that purple goo coming out of that big slug’s rear end?

Oww! That crayfish pinched me again!

Do I REALLY have to pick up that cockroach with my hands?

This is what I have to listen to in my lab at the beginning of each school year when high school seniors are conducting research on neuroscience. A public high school may seem like an unusual place for neuroscience research, but the teens I teach are really into it. Let me tell you how we got started.

More than 10 years ago, a major shift at our school saw many freshmen and sophomores registering for AP Biology instead of waiting for their junior or senior years. It occurred to me that after taking AP Biology, some students may wish to explore neurobiology in greater depth, so I created a class called Recent Advances in Neurobiology.

Students giving a teacher a mock EEG analysis.

Students John Kim (far left), Jon Sredl, Chris Heo, and John Anderson prepare Dr. Cammer’s head for EEG analysis

It’s pretty much like a graduate school seminar class: students do about 45 pages of reading homework on various topics in neurobiology, then come in and discuss everything they’ve read. Half their grade is based on class participation (i.e., talking, which high schoolers seem to be fond of anyway). Of course, they are “inspired” to come to class prepared because there is a quiz every day. (Yay!)

The topics for reading and discussion are chosen by the students, and throughout the semester we usually cover the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s disease, cocaine, synesthesia, marijuana, gender, and stuff like that. The students seem to love the material and the format.

Three years ago we decided to take this neuro stuff a bit further: we created a new Neuroscience Research Laboratory where seniors can work on year-long research projects.

Two girls experiementing.

Jasteena Gill (left) and Mica Moore discuss the electrophysiology results from an experiment with Aplysia (a sea slug)

I have students studying the nervous system of the sea slug Aplysia, the escape response in Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and the neurobiology of behavior in crayfish. Other students aredesigning a wheelchair (and other peripherals) to be controlled by brainwaves. This program can be established at almost any high school. All you need is a strong desire and commitment – and a sign that says “We ? Brains,” of course.

Oh, yes. By the end of the first week they know what the purple goo is and they’re picking up the cockroaches. But somehow they still get pinched by the crayfish.

Paul A. Cammer, Ph.D., Director Neuroscience Research Laboratory Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

Jae Sim dissects a leech in preparation of electrophysiology  study

My Life Story

October is National Substance Abuse Prevention Month. We asked teens to tell us who inspires them to stay away from illicit drugs. Here’s what one teen said. 

I know drugs tempt us every day. They're all around us. I am gonna tell you how I stay away from drugs.

How many of you have been influenced by a drug? Who influenced you? Your friend? Someone in your family? A stranger? Well, you're not the only one that has happened to.

Some people I used to be friends with do drugs, but just because they do drugs doesn't mean I have to. My grandma helps me stay strong and not get tempted. Even though my grandmother suffers from dementia today, she is still a role model to me. All her life, she was a hard worker and she is a smart woman. She always made sure everybody else was okay, never once thinking about herself. When I see me, I want to see her and all of her greatness in me. I want to be just like her once I grow up, and to do that I need to keep out of trouble.

When somebody offers you drugs, say no. Saying no is easier than you think. If you do drugs, you can end up in serious trouble. You can end up going to jail, or you can get in trouble with your parents or school. Just know what's right in your heart and you will have the ability to say no.

Hanging out with the right crowd can help you stay away from drugs. If your friends try tempting you, they're probably not good friends. Friends reflect who you are. I know I want to be held to high standards and with great respect.

Stay strong and don't let drugs enter your life. You are a strong person and you can say no.

9th grader Allyssa Garcia has been in choir since she was in kindergarten. She has always participated in school activities and clubs, and she loves to write.

Allyssa Garcia talks about mentors who help her be drug-free

Transforming Tragedy Into Hope

One of the things I love most about music is its ability to transform tragedy into hope, as anyone who has listened obsessively to a "breakup song" knows. But, as artists like Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Joan Baez, and countless others have shown, songs can do more than comfort. They can change who we are as a culture and inspire us to work together to make the world a better place.

So, when I first met with a group of advanced music production students at the Media Arts Collaborative Charter School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I knew I wanted to do more than just help the teens make an album of original music. I also wanted to help them make a difference in their community—to tap into the transformative power of music to heal, to comfort, and to open a window of hope.

A Life Lost to Addiction

The high school class of eight fledgling producers, songwriters, rappers, and musicians were all highly enthusiastic about the project. When considering issues to address, they reflected on the senseless 2010 death of a schoolmate, 16-year-old Haley Paternoster, of a heroin overdose. It turned out almost all of us had seen someone—a friend, a family member—destroyed by addiction, whether from heroin, prescription drugs like OxyContin, or alcohol. Haley’s death offered us a tragic common bond.

The class decided to make an album of original hip-hop music focused on addiction, dedicated to Haley's memory. Her father, Steve Paternoster, a local restaurateur, talk show host, and philanthropist, talked to our class several times. His words were raw, real, and deeply moving. Other students, also touched by addiction, began sharing personal stories, allowing us to begin working through our losses and permitting us to dive in, fully aware and sensitive to how addiction can wreck lives.

Haley, We Miss You

It took just 2 weeks to complete the title track, "Haley, We Miss You." We pushed forward. It was very important to the students that we keep the message real, unlike many other antidrug education programs they had experienced in the school system. We wanted an album to be thoughtful and hard hitting while keeping in mind the many complexities surrounding the issue.

The students composed songs about the power of music, the apparent contradictions of the "war on drugs," and the hardships of growing up in the rougher parts of our hometown. They wrote about the dangers of prescription painkillers and how advertisers try to manipulate youth to buy their products. We looked at addiction as part of the larger context of the mental and emotional health of our community.

Jennifer Weiss of the Albuquerque Heroin Awareness Committee, whose son Cameron had overdosed after a long struggle with heroin addiction, approached us. Cameron was a poet and rapper who, before he died, had composed and partially recorded a song about his struggle, "A One Way Track To Hell." It was a haunting and powerful work that unknowingly foreshadowed Cameron’s death; we accepted the challenge of completing the backing music and remixing the song to include in the album.

A CD for Every 8th Grader in Albuquerque

A graffiti mural of a young girl.

The album was just the first step. Our ultimate goal: to produce a CD for every 8th grader in Albuquerque. Prevention experts suggest that 8th graders are at the highest risk for experimenting with opioid painkillers, usually in the form of OxyContin, which was the case for Haley before switching to heroin. We felt the best approach was to try to reach out to kids at risk of using before they start.


Our label, "SoundOven," was created both as a musical identity and as the name for the organization we wanted to launch using music and film as media for positive social change. We knew we needed a budget for CD duplication, printing costs, and a music video. So, we started a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo asking for help. The fundraising appeal has concluded, but you can still check out our pitch video.

We received an overwhelming response: in 90 days, we had raised more than $10,000. Haley’s dad Steve was personally very generous, but we also got a big helping hand when the Albuquerque Journal did a front-page story on our campaign, subsequently picked up in local TV newscasts. In the end, more than 100 people from 5 countries contributed to our cause.

The Mission Continues

I could not be prouder of my students, Floyd Moya, Robert Serrano, Falon Cole, Ruben Valenzuela, Caelan Harris, Issac Leeman, Alex Wilson, Quinlan Spears, and Alex Torres. Their creativity, passion, and dedication makes me excited to get up every morning to do this work.

But the work is not yet done. We now have 2,000 copies of the finished CD to place into the hands of youth at risk for opioid addiction—which could really be anyone. We are coordinating with the heroin awareness committee and Albuquerque Public Schools substance abuse counselors, the culmination of our yearlong effort.

Along the way, I have been thrilled and humbled. I learned that empowering young people to find their voices, express themselves, and make a difference gives them a chance to accomplish much more than a school project. It allows them to shape their world. I have learned that when you reach out to your community with passion and conviction, the community will return that gift a hundredfold. Most of all, though, I have learned that tragedy can become opportunity—to learn, to take action, and to heal. And, to remember. Haley, we miss you, but I think you would be proud of what we have done in your name.


Blake Minnerly is a musician, filmmaker, and educator whose passion is helping young people make meaningful, professional media projects that advocate for positive social change in their communities. Besides his work at the Media Arts Collaborative Charter School, he plays in several bands and does freelance soundtrack composition, sound design, and editing. He is currently in the process of incorporating SoundOven as an independent nonprofit to continue and expand the project started in his advanced music production class.

More than 300 people helped develop the music video for “Haley, We Miss You,” including funders, extras, cast and crew, fire marshals, and city officials who waived fees for permits. Mr. Minnerly would like to especially acknowledge the following organizations for their contributions: Author’s note: Anyone wishing to use the video or the full album (available for free download at for their own educational or prevention efforts can do so for FREE. Both are under a Creative Commons license that, with appropriate attribution, allows all uses other than reproducing the work for profit.


Blake Minnerly

Comorbidity, a Word for Thought...

“Comorbidity” is a strange word, right? Well, at least for me it was. I have to admit it that it was the first scientific word I learned during my internship here at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)–my Spanish accent still gives me a hard time pronouncing it. On the first day of my internship, I had to read and get acquainted with the extensive research that NIDA has done and published. Comorbidity was featured in NIDA’s Research Report Series.

So, what’s co-mor-bid-it-y? Here’s what NIDA scientists say: “When two disorders or illnesses occur in the same person, together or one after the other, they are called comorbid.” Having two disorders together can also cause them to interact in ways that make both of them worse.

So what does all of that really mean? It means that sometimes two illnesses go together. For example, people who have depression or other mental illness are often addicted to drugs as well, and vice versa, so that’s why scientists say depression is often “comorbid with” drug abuse.

NIDA scientists aren’t completely sure why people who are depressed are more likely to have a drug abuse problem. But here’s my take on it. Everyone has felt down before. If someone feels really bad, they may turn to drugs to “ease their mind.”  Unfortunately, that can lead to a second disease–addiction to drugs–and then they feel even worse than they did before.

That’s what’s really bad about comorbid diseases: they can make each other worse! If someone is depressed, it’s harder to be motivated to quit using drugs. And if someone is using drugs, it can interfere with their treatment for depression.

What other diseases do you think could be comorbid? And why?

This is a guest SBB post from NIDA intern Giselle.

image of a stressed brain

YOU Are the Voice of Your Generation…

…Which is a pretty powerful thing, when you think about it.

At Mentor Foundation USA, we encourage teens to use their voices.

This is why, every year, we join forces with NIDA during National Drug Facts Week (NDFW) to host National Drug Facts Day. At this special event, we invite youth to engage with top U.S. scientists and guests to shatter the myths about drugs and substance abuse. We give youth the opportunity to ask all of their questions about substance abuse, openly and without fear of judgment, and get answers from experts in the field.

Special guests also speak about their experiences. Last year, R&B singer Mario Barrett spoke about his struggles growing up with a mother who had a heroin addiction. This year, Dr. Lonise Bias joins us to speak about the loss of her son Len Bias, who died of an overdose just after being drafted into the NBA.

Throughout NDFW and National Drug Facts Day, the focus is on teens like you! We want to ensure that participants go away with enough knowledge to feel empowered to make responsible choices. This is why YOUR voice matters! We believe that if you have good information, you have the power to make healthy decisions.

Speaker at  Mentor's National Drug Facts Week even 2011.National Drug Facts Day is just one of many events being held nationwide for National Drug Facts Week. Find and participate in an event near you.

Michaela Pratt is the Marketing & Project Manager for Mentor Foundation USA, a nonprofit organization that works to reduce risk factors and increase opportunities for youth. Through its programming, the organization works with the business community and other organizations to connect youth with the professional world. Structured mentoring programs, 1-day career opportunities, and community workshops help to motivate youth toward higher achievement and healthy lifestyles.

Teens participating in Mentor's National Drug Facts Week event

Unexpected Mentors

October is National Substance Abuse Prevention Month. We asked teens to tell us who inspires them to stay away from illicit drugs. Here’s what one teen said. 

It’s hard to believe that a man I barely know and probably never will could affect me in such a way. Elliott Hulse is a strength coach on YouTube. He lives in Florida and has helped me grow stronger through his passionate videos and speeches. He took steroids at one point in his life, and many years later he is happy as can be. He taught me that throughout our lives, we are constantly reborn. He always uses his “steroid days” as an analogy for what he tries to convey in the present moment. He says that he first experienced rebirth after he stopped taking steroids. In hindsight, he killed off that character in himself that used enhancing drugs and thus attained a new outlook on life. He became experienced.

Experience is what we come to appreciate and look up to nowadays. Experience conveys to other people that you have been through a particular situation and know how to deal with it. I for one find that when a message comes from a reliable source, I am more likely to follow it.

Elliott Hulse is and continues to be my role model to this day. His experience allowed him to be reborn and bring new insight into other people’s lives and creates a stepping stool for people so that they don’t have to make the same mistakes. Alexandra K. Trenfor said it best: “The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.”

Instead of hammering into me that drugs are bad, my role model brightened a path for me and let me decide what I wanted to find. I’m Wahib Farooqui and I’m proud to say I am and will continue to be drug free.

Wahib Farooqui is an 11th grader at Hidden Valley High School and considers himself a young entrepreneur. “I will live a life that will make you smile, even when I’m done here and long gone.” – Wahib’s Philosophy

Wahib Farooqui talks about mentors who help him be drug-free

Getting in the Grammy Groove

MusiCares and GRAMMY Foundation Teen Substance Abuse, in collaboration with NIDA recently sponsored the Awareness through Music Contest for high school students to create and perform an original composition called the Teen Substance Abuse Awareness through Music Contest. The first-place winners, Jordan Atkins and Dae’ Vion Caves, write here about what this experience means to them.

Hello fellow listeners and fans. This is Jordan Atkins and Dae’ Vion Caves. We would just like to share with you why we wrote this song. We give special thanks to God, first and foremost, but we received news about the contest through a counselor at our school. The counselor went to our manager/leader, Mrs. Wittman, of the group and from there we worked on the song and video.

It took a lot of dedication, since we had only two weeks before the deadline, but we were able to let that be a minor issue and finish the song and video with help from our friends that lived in the community.

We have a rap group at our school named "Alton High School’s 618," which consists of four members, but only two of us were able to compete in the competition, due to the rules.

The reason we wrote the lyrics is because we are trying to tell people to rise above their circumstances. We know, from our own family experiences that things can get rough at times, especially when you have no one to turn to.

We just want to let all of the fans, children, and even adults know that no matter how hard the struggle becomes, you can always follow your dreams. You shouldn’t let anyone get in the way of that!! We are just another two artists who are trying to make something happen with our lives, but when we come together as one, we can have the world on our side.

We thank everyone for all of the support and hope to come out in the industry so you can all enjoy our music. The feeling is unimaginable, although we want to stay humble. We have A LOT of support throughout our city, school, and friends. Along with us, our community is helping to raise funds so we can get our other two members to attend with us in February.

We thank our school, community, and fans for all of the support and once again, we hope we can get into the music industry so you all can hear our music. Thank You!!

Science in an Office Environment: My Summer at NIDA

My name is Michael and I was an intern at NIDA during the summer of 2012. Normally, people picture scientists in laboratories when they think about the National Institutes of Health, but my time with NIDA has shown me that a lot of important scientific work is done in the office setting. Interning with NIDA, I was able to learn about scientific investigating, while also learning important aspects of working in a Government office, like public speaking and professionalism.

I worked on behalf of the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) Workgroup at NIDA. Being an Asian American myself, I felt it appropriate that while learning the ropes of a scientific career, I could also participate in a program that would help prevent problems affecting minorities. The goal of my internship was to work with other AAPI Workgroup interns to design a Web site that would function as a survey to assess the rate of substance use among Asians as well as act as a research portal for anyone interested in learning about the dangers of drug abuse.

Since the interns had different skill sets, we all made the most out of our time because tasks were assigned according to our individual capabilities. On an average day, I would commute to NIDA and begin working on tasks, which usually involved research on a particular drug topic. Twice a week, the AAPI team would meet for a teleconference, where we heard drug-related lectures and received work instructions.

Some interesting things I learned during my NIDA internship include:

  • The scope of addictive behaviors is increasing, with new problems that didn't exist before. For example, Internet addiction disorder is an emerging problem that may become a legitimate addiction in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—used to diagnose mental health conditions.
  • Cultural pressures play a huge role in substance use, and different racial subgroups vary in their drug usage rates. For instance, Asian subgroups—such as Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese—have different rates of drug abuse and dependence.
  • People who try drugs in adolescence can triple their chances of abusing drugs when they’re adults.

Aside from the abundance of new information I learned about the risks and prevalence of drug use, the daily practice of professionalism in the workplace is probably the greatest thing that I got out of this program. Whether it was simply dressing up every day or learning to work with peers and elders, interning at NIDA helped me grow into a more open-minded and mature individual. My experience with NIDA has given me insight into what it is really like to have a career in science, and it has definitely influenced my idea of a desirable path for the future.

This internship is very new because the summer of 2012 was its first year. Whatever direction this program goes, it offers valuable, real-world experiences, and so I encourage everyone to apply or simply stay tuned to NIDA to experience the intellectual growth that I have.

Michael Guo is a senior in high school in Vienna, Virginia.  He interned with NIDA’s Clinical Trials Network, which develops, validates, and delivers new treatment options to patients in Community Treatment Programs. 

Michael Guo

A New HIV Case every 9 ½ Minutes

Every 9 ½ minutes: that's how often the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that someone in the U.S. gets infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In the next 10 minutes, someone will get HIV—and it could be your friend or someone in your family.

By the way, do you remember the word for thought in my earlier post? Comorbidity? Well, HIV is one of the many diseases that is "comorbid with" drug use. NIDA's "Learn the Link" campaign is all about how drug use can expose us to infection from HIV. When someone is using drugs, their decisions may not be well considered. They can have poor judgment and do risky things, like having unprotected sex. And that might mean getting infected with HIV.

According to the CDC, by the end of 2007, 3,230 adolescents 13 to 19 years old were reported to be living with AIDS in the United States and dependent areas (like Puerto Rico). And unfortunately, more people are getting infected all the time.

June 27 was National HIV Testing Day. Did you get tested?

This is a guest SBB post from NIDA intern Giselle.

National HIV Testing Day - June 27

Take the National Drug IQ Challenge

National Drug Facts Week is in full swing! Have you looked up any facts? As a scientist, I love studying data and reading about real facts that have been tested by credible science. Some facts might surprise you.

For example, did you know that:

  • if you begin smoking marijuana as a teen, it could lower your IQ?
  • more people die from painkiller overdoses in the country every year than from heroin and cocaine combined?
  • fewer kids are smoking cigarettes these days?

What kinds of drug facts interest you? I recommend you try three things.

  1. Check out our NIDA for Teens Web site at
  2. If your school has not signed up for National Drug Facts Day, watch our chat with NIDA scientists tomorrow, January 31, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET.
  3. Take the interactive 2013 National Drug IQ Challenge to see what you know about drugs!

Stay smart by taking some time to research the facts about drugs.

National Drug IQ Challenge

My Addicted Father

October is National Substance Abuse Prevention Month. We asked teens to tell us who inspires them to stay away from illicit drugs. Here’s what one teen said. 

You probably haven't met my mother.

Or any of my teachers.

Or the friends I surround myself with.

And that's okay.

But you see, I've always grown up in a loving—albeit kind of tension-filled—household. I have a mother who’s strict, but loving, and a father who drinks and sometimes forgets my birthday, but I can feel his unconditional love for me as well.

I've always been surrounded by words like “Don't become like your father” and “Don't do drugs, kid!” And at first, it just seems like “yeah, yeah, whatever.” But when you have someone close to you abuse a substance like alcohol, everything just kind of clicks into perspective. I've grown up with an alcoholic father. I remember thinking, when I was little, that everyone had a father that got drunk every night and left the lights and TV on late and woke up with eyes bloodshot and rimmed-red.

This was my norm.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that, although I have an alcoholic father, I've never felt the pull of alcohol or drugs. Maybe it's been indoctrinated into me. Or maybe it's because of the people I've surrounded myself with and learned to trust with my issues: my teachers, my friends, and my mother. I see their lives and hear the stories about their misguided siblings or friends or parents, and I think, That's not who I want to become. I want to be like my mother, my teacher, my friends.

Maybe it's not always about you. Maybe it's about the people your heart decides to care about, about how they will be affected by your actions. Doing drugs is not a personal decision. It is a selfish one. So if you ever feel the urge, don't just think of yourself. Think of those around you.

Born and raised in Irving, Texas, the author of this post (who asked to remain anonymous)is a 9th grader who loves chick flicks, writing, and traveling, and finds that she is happiest surrounded by nature, immersed in a good book.

Silhouette of a man drinking alcohol

Guest Blog from Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA Director

Hello! I am just back from speaking at a news conference about NIDA’s 2010 Monitoring the Future Survey (MTF)—a big crowd of reporters showed up to hear the latest numbers with regard to teens and drug use. I wrote about MTF last year, remember? To remind you, MTF is an anonymous survey of more than 46,000 8th, 10th and 12th graders around the country. The survey measures drug and alcohol use. It also assesses teens’ attitudes about drugs by asking these questions: “Do you think drugs are harmful?” “Do you disapprove of drugs?” And… “How available are they?” This year we had some surprising changes that have me worried.

For one thing, marijuana use is going up, especially among 8th graders. The survey also showed that fewer teens think marijuana is harmful. This is one of the biggest drug myths out there. Not only does marijuana affect learning, judgment, and motor skills, but research tells us that about 1 in 11 people who use marijuana even once will later become addicted to it. AND, the younger people start, the more likely this will happen. Therefore, I am especially concerned by survey results showing that daily marijuana use increased significantly among all three grades, so that in 2010, 6.1 percent of high school seniors, 3.3 percent of 10th-graders, and 1.2 percent of 8th-graders were daily marijuana users.

In some cases it looks as if marijuana is becoming more popular than cigarettes. In 2010, 21.4 percent of high school seniors used marijuana in the past 30 days, while 19.2 percent smoked cigarettes. The good news is there are still a lot of wise teens who stay away from both marijuana and cigarettes. Research shows that these kids will be more successful in school, and in life.

(note: Video is from 2009)

The MTF Survey also tells us that abuse of prescription drugs remains high. That is when you use a medication not prescribed for you or in a way not intended—such as taking ADHD drugs before a test or taking a pain reliever to get high. In fact, 6 of the top 10 drugs abused by 12th-graders in the past year were prescribed or purchased over- the- counter. Prescription pain relievers (opioids) are a particular problem, with many more overdoses occurring than in the past.

NIDA would like to hear your feedback—why do you think more teens are using marijuana, and fewer are disapproving of its use?

Monitoring the Future logo

A Taste of Research Sparks Lifelong Career Visions

Hello, you last heard from me when I won one of NIDA’s Science of Addiction Awards at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair. Since then, NIDA invited me to become an intern at its Intramural Research Program (IRP) lab in Baltimore, Maryland, and it was a memorable experience. I worked in the Molecular Targets and Medications Discovery Branch. The research I conducted at NIDA focused on cocaine addiction but also has applications for Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia.

My project looked at how dopamine receptors in the brain might structurally combine to affect cocaine addiction and other neurological disorders. After taking two buses to come to the IRP campus every morning, I strapped on my gloves and started preparing the substance to give to the dopamine cells. My experiments usually lasted the whole day. I always waited with excitement at the end of the day to see the results. Through the experimentation, we developed a better understanding of the intracellular signaling of dopamine receptors (how they “talk” to each other), which could eventually help in developing new drugs to treat ailments associated with the dopamine receptors, including addiction.

I enjoyed the opportunity to work in a professional environment. I was able to contribute to the research in Dr. Sergi Ferre's lab, called the Central Nervous System Receptor-Receptor Interactions Unit. Every Thursday, our lab met to discuss our results. There, I had the amazing opportunity to work with my mentor, Dr. Xavier Guitart—something I will never forget. I was new to this specific field of neurology, so Dr. Guitart guided me through the whole process. He was always there when I needed guidance. It was so great to work in such a supportive environment.

Loss Led to Interest in Brain Science

I became interested in drug addiction because of my strong desire to contribute to research in the neurology field, after my uncle passed away from stroke in 2008. Stroke constricts blood flow to the brain, which is why it is a neurological disorder. Addiction is another disorder that affects the brain, which is what initially made me interested in drug addiction. My hope is that developing a treatment for addiction will also shed light on neurological disorders like stroke.

I've always wanted to be a medical doctor, possibly a surgeon. But now that I've had a glimpse of working in a research lab, it is something that I want to pursue later in life. Through this opportunity, I’ve learned that drug addiction is an important issue that affects many people, and that my efforts, along with many others’ efforts, will contribute to finding effective treatments. Working at the NIDA lab gave me a lot to think about as I enter my final year of high school.

Yamini Naidu is a senior at Valley Catholic High School in Beaverton, Oregon.  Her lab work in NIDA's Intramural Research Program has inspired her to pursue a joint M.D.-Ph.D. program in neurology.

Yamini Naidu

Life is Complicated Enough: Why Add Prescription Drugs to the Mix?

As a public health analyst at NIDA, one of my jobs is to look at data and help get information out to the public. When I heard that about 1 in 10 high school seniors had used the pain medicine Vicodin last year without a prescription, I knew there was a problem. Many people, and not just teens, think that because doctors are the ones who typically prescribe these drugs, they are safe for anyone to use. That’s not true.

So, why would someone take a prescription drug that wasn’t theirs? Research shows there are many reasons.

While a number of young people take prescription drugs to get high, many teens, especially girls, take them to help them concentrate when studying or to deal with physical pain. Even this type of use is considered “abuse” and is illegal since the drug was not prescribed for that person.

Not only is it illegal but it might end up affecting your health. Even if you follow the directions on the label, those instructions were written for someone else. For example, different body weights require different dosages for many medicines.

You might be saying, “Well, my friend took a prescription drug that wasn’t hers and she was ok.   What’s the big deal?” Maybe for your friend, or even you, it was fine that time-but that may not be the case the next time. Some people aren’t so lucky (like Heath Ledger). Different drugs have different effects. For example, abusing stimulants could cause your blood pressure to become dangerously high or lead to an irregular heartbeat. Or if opioids are taken with alcohol or antihistamines, they can cause you to stop breathing.

Writing this reminded me of a story I heard about an acquaintance who decided to try OxyContin at a party. She had been drinking when she took the pill and didn’t know that OxyContin mixed with alcohol can have some pretty nasty effects. She became disoriented, got separated from her friends, and passed out. Fortunately, her friends found her and she recovered.  She decided never again to take that kind of risk, but it’s too bad she had to go through such a scary ordeal before making that choice.

When you’re faced with the option to use a prescription drug that’s not yours, pause and ask yourself… Is this something I really want to add to the mix? Do I want to take the chance of putting myself and my friends through what could happen? If you’re reading this, you’ve shown that you care about yourself and your future.   Show you care the next time you face a tough choice about whether or not to pop a pill that’s not yours.

Bio: Anna is a public health analyst with NIDA. She spends a lot of time looking at numbers and answering questions about drug abuse statistics. When she’s not doing that she’s usually at the gym, finding new restaurants, or spending time with her family.

Anna in NYC getting ready to eat a full meal.

During National Drug Facts Week: The Truth About Prescription Drugs

Did you know that prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are the most commonly abused substances by high school seniors (after marijuana and alcohol)? Some medications have psychoactive (mind-altering) properties and, because of that, are sometimes abused—taken for reasons or in ways not intended by a doctor, or taken by someone with no prescription.

In all my years as a medical doctor and scientist who studies drug abuse, I have never met anyone who wanted to get addicted. Sometimes, addiction comes from a lack of knowledge. For example, people often think that prescription and OTC drugs are safer than illicit drugs, but that’s only true when they are taken exactly as prescribed and for the purpose intended. When abused, prescription and OTC drugs can be addictive and lead to other bad health effects, including overdose—especially when taken along with other drugs or alcohol.

You can help protect yourself from such risks by knowing the facts about drugs. Check out our NIDA for Teens site to learn more and see what’s happening now during National Drug Facts Week.

We have a cool infographic on Monitoring the Future stats—Check it out.

Chart of Past-Year Teen Drug Abuse

To the Color: A NIDA Employee Honors the Nation’s Veterans

Eleven years ago, I enlisted in the United States Air Force and learned how to recite the Core Values: Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in all we do.

Over the next 10 years, I learned what it meant to uphold those values while serving as a combat correspondent and broadcast journalist. My job was to tell the Air Force Story through the lens of a camera and support my fellow service members. It was the best job in the world.

Every day, I woke up to the song of our Nation resonating in my head. Every mission, I was challenged to answer our Nation’s call to serve, both overseas and here at home.

I travelled to 15 countries and heard hundreds of stories from the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and military families I met along the way. I was allowed to capture their experiences with my camera, and I was entrusted with sharing these moments with the world.

I am not able to express any greater honor than in being a veteran serving my fellow veterans.

A year ago, I chose a different kind of public service: I joined the NIDA team. Now, I support NIDA public affairs. My “weapon” is the same, and my mission is similar.

Today, I help to bring the “power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction.” Our scope is global, and our vision helps provide the tools needed to be informed, healthy citizens. Most of the videos I shoot and edit are on the NIDA for Teens site and NIDA TV section of our main site.

I still wake up every day to the song of our Nation; I still answer its call.

To all those who have served, and continue to serve, we know our mission doesn’t end when the last bugle calls.


Josie Anderson

Guest Blog from Dr. Cindy Miner, Deputy Director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications


That was my question. Why do people do the things they do. I used to just love to sit and watch people. I could sit at the park or in the mall for hours and just “people watch.” I think that's why when I got to college I eventually became a psychology major. I wanted to understand more about why people behave in certain ways and what makes people choose to do different things.

One thing fascinated me in particular was why do some people smoke? My parents smoked when I was growing up. I remember my dad decided to quit and he seemed to do it so easily but when my mom tried, it was so hard for her. She seemed to try everything to quit, and then her mood would get so bad that soon she was buying another pack. Eventually though she did quit...I don't know what finally did it—back then we didn't have the patch or gum and there were no medications. No one talked about smoking being an addiction, it was just a habit, and people thought you only needed willpower to be able to quit. Imagine how hard it must have been for my mom to see my dad being able to quit so easily and her having to struggle so hard.

Smoking affects people very differently. When I was about 18, I had some very cool friends who smoked and so I wanted to smoke too. So I tried it but, lucky for me, I hated it. That was my first lesson in genetics. My second was when I took a class in behavioral genetics, and suddenly all my life experiences started to click, to make sense. My mother struggled to quit because she had a genetic tendency for addiction, not just smoking but also for alcohol, which eventually took her life. I was lucky I had many of my dad’s protective genes so substances of abuse were never tempting to me.

It was these life experiences that drew me to the field of genetics, to better understand why some people struggle so mightily with addiction like my mother. We don't have all the answers even today, but many scientists are working on this puzzle to help find better treatments so people can overcome their addictions and reclaim their lives. Think about becoming a scientist to help solve this puzzle and make life better for so many! It’s a great field and very rewarding, too.

Dr. Miner is the Deputy Director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications (OSPC) at NIDA. She helps coordinate all of NIDA’s communications to Congress, constituent groups, and the media. She also oversees NIDA’s plans for the research it will support. Cindy earned her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Colorado in 1986. She’s published numerous papers and book chapters on the genetic and biochemical bases of addiction. Oh—she’s also a wonderful person, an Emmy award winner (as part of NIDA’s work on the HBO special, “Addiction”), and a super athlete! So being a successful “science nerd” is just one of her many talents

* Dr. Miner will soon leave her position at NIDA to start an exciting new job with the Food and Drug Administration’s new Center for Tobacco Products, helping to start up their Communications and Policy offices. SBB wishes her the best!

A woman sitting at a desk, next to an academy award.

Life as an Intern at NIDA's Public Information and Liaison Branch

My name is Zofia, and I’m going to tell you a little bit about my experience interning with NIDA this past summer. I worked at NIDA last summer also, but in a different office. This time, I got a chance to learn more about how NIDA works by interning in the Public Information and Liaison Branch, otherwise known as PILB. (For those of you who don’t know, there are a LOT of acronyms to keep track of in the Government. Definitely made life a little bit more interesting and kept me on my toes!)

Even though I just graduated from college and thought I knew everything about everything, I learned a new fact every single day at NIDA. Aside from memorizing acronyms, another thing that kept things interesting in the office for me were the phone calls I handled. If someone looking at the NIDA Web site had a question, they called a phone number that went straight to my desk at PILB.

People would most often call to get more information about drug abuse, and I would forward them on to the appropriate NIDA staff member to answer. Sometimes it was a teary family member who had a loved one they suspected was abusing drugs, and they wanted to get more information about how to spot signs of drug abuse. Sometimes it was a teen who had tried a drug and wanted information about how it affected their body. It was really difficult sometimes to hear the despair and heartbreak in the voice of the callers, but for me, the silver lining in these situations was that people wanted to be as informed as possible about substance abuse problems.

And I hope that goes for you too! If you have a second, check out the awesome info on the NIDA for Teens Web site. Maybe you think that you can’t get hooked on cigarettes if you only try one. Or maybe you think marijuana is totally harmless. These are both myths that you can learn more about.

Working at NIDA has challenged my idea of what addiction really is, who it affects, and what can be done to treat it. Did you know that ANYONE could become addicted to drugs, especially drugs like heroin or prescription painkillers? Any person with a brain can become physically dependent on drugs.

Before my internship ended, I worked on “National Drug Facts Week,” an awesome NIDA-sponsored event that uses an entire week from January 28 to February 3, 2013, to dispel myths around drug abuse. Think about putting National Drug Facts Week on your calendar, and definitely tell your friends about it! And bookmark the NIDA for Teens Web site and come back often to check it out.

Zofia Klosowska, a graduate of the University of Maryland, was a summer intern in NIDA's Office of Science Policy and Communications. Now she is a Research Training Award Fellow at NIDA's Intramural Research Program labs in Baltimore, Maryland, where she will work with scientists looking into environmental and individual reasons people use drugs and relapse after treatment.

A teenage girl.

Are You Good to Go?

In the U.S. military, servicemembers ask each other this question to make sure that they're ready and able to accomplish the mission at hand. If someone is "good to go," then they are alert, accountable, and prepared to do their job. Someone who is "good to go" will avoid mistakes and make better decisions.

One thing is for sure: you can't be "good to go" when you're taking drugs.

For you, the workplace might be school or your summer job. If you're not "good to go," it could mean a bad grade on your chemistry test or getting benched on your football team. But for our men and women in uniform, drug use threatens their ability to protect one another and defend our Nation. A lack of concentration or a wrong decision could put everyone in danger. It could even cost someone their life.

That's why the Department of Defense is taking steps to create the largest drug-free workplace in the world. Its zero-tolerance policy (PDF, 51.27KB) on drugs means that servicemembers will have the best mental and physical health necessary to do their jobs.

At the same time, many of our servicemen and women are young and need as much support as they can get. Just like when you had to move to a new school or find a new group of friends, life in the military can be stressful. The day-to-day grind of combat, the effects of injury, or being apart from family can cause people to be depressed. And depression can lead to drug use. Just like you, service men and women sometimes need help getting through those tough periods - using healthy ways to cope without turning to drugs.

The Real Warriors Program is aimed at wiping out the stigma associated with getting mental health care in the military. The campaign uses the stories of servicemembers who admitted they needed help and now are pursuing successful military careers. From October 23-31, the Defense Department will honor these real warriors during Red Ribbon Week, an event to raise public awareness about the negative effects of drugs on military personnel, civilians, and their families.

Now, more than ever, we need good role models. Whether you are serving in the military, working at a desk job, or going to school, don't hesitate to offer help to someone in need. When's the last time you asked someone, "Are you good to go?"

Do you have a personal story about the importance of role models and encouraging one another to overcome life's challenges? If so, please comment on this blog post - we'd love to hear your story! This is a guest post from Dr. John Ohab, host of the Defense Department's weekly science radio show, "Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military."

Dr. John Ohab

Drug Testing for…Poppy Seeds?

Did you know that morphine, codeine, and heroin are produced from the seeds of certain kinds of poppy flowers? Morphine and codeine are often used as medications for treating pain, and all three—known as opiates—can be abused. 

Poppy seeds are also used as a flavorful ingredient in many popular foods, including muffins and bagels. Although poppy seeds used in food are produced legally, they can contain high enough levels of the opioid to trigger a positive result on some types of drug urine tests.

So, you may wonder, if you ate a poppy seed bagel for breakfast, could results of a drug test come out positive for these opiates?

Once poppy seeds are eaten, the body develops detectable levels of opiates almost immediately. As a 2003 “MythBusters” episode notes, someone can test positive for opiates as soon as 2 hours after eating a poppy seed-loaded item. Other studies have shown that the levels remain elevated for up to 3 days.

School athletes may want to pay attention to this. Across the country, about one in seven school districts perform some sort of drug testing on their students. Students in middle school, high school, or college may be asked to take a drug test in order to participate in athletic activities or other programs.

False positives (when the test wrongly reports someone used drugs) can and do happen. For example, Federal prisoners, who undergo drug tests with some frequency, are forbidden to eat foods that contain poppy seeds.

Over the past 20 years, legal cases by law enforcement officials, workers, athletes, or students “caught” or penalized for positive urine tests for opiates have made famous the “poppy seed bagel defense.” A series of lawsuits and evolving research have proven that an individual’s urine can indeed produce a positive test result for opiates after the person eats poppy seed-containing cakes, muffins, or bagels. In one large study, up to 87% of tests considered positive for opiate use were due in part to poppy seeds in foods as well as prescription medications.

When positive test results are proven to have been due to eating poppy seeds, they are overturned. More accurate measurement of opiate levels can be done by analyzing a blood or hair sample. These tests cost more and may be used to double-check a positive urine result. 

To all you poppy seed lovers out there: They can be a tasty treat in favorite foods, but may be one to avoid before undergoing drug testing. Keep things simple: Try an onion bagel instead.

Jack Maypole, M.D., is the Director of Pediatrics at the South End Community Health Center as well as the Comprehensive Care Program at Boston Medical Center. He is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. Cartooning has been a lifelong fascination and hobby.

Comic of coach warning athlete not to eat poppy seeds

poppy seed bagel

National Drug Facts Week is right around the corner….


My name is Yvonne Urbina and I’m an intern in NIDA’s Public Information and Liaison Branch. I attend New Mexico State University, and I’m thrilled to be here during such an exciting time. As you may already know, National Drug Facts Week (NDFW) is right around the corner—January 27 to February 2, 2014. Although we’ve been busy organizing this awesome event, I thought I would fill you in a little on how you can get involved!

National Drug Facts Week is an opportunity for teens to ask questions and get answers about drugs and drug abuse. If you haven’t already done so, make sure to visit the NDFW Web site to check out all the cool events that are going to take place all over the country.

Don’t see your city? No problem! Talk to your teachers, counselors, classmates, and friends about getting your city on the map. There’s still plenty of time to brainstorm ideas for an event, and getting involved is simple.

So tell us...why are YOU shattering the myths? Print this sign (PDF), fill it out, and share on Facebook and Twitter using #drugfacts. Stay tuned to Twitter and Facebook to see if we share your picture!

Yvonne Urbina

What is a Clinical Trial?

My name is Sarah and before my high school senior year, I spent a summer at NIDA as an intern with the Center for Clinical Trials Network (CCTN). Never heard of it? Neither had I. I discovered that the goal of the CCTN is to improve the quality of drug abuse treatment throughout the whole country by doing safe and interesting scientific studies with humans. By the way, human studies are called “Clinical Trials.” These are trials or tests done to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of different medications or approaches by monitoring their effects on large groups of people, like a big “clinic” full of patients, but in a research setting.

As the name implies, the CCTN works as a network that includes scientific investigators all over the country. These investigators work together to develop and carry out clinical trials to evaluate behavioral and medical treatments for drug addiction, and to discover new ways to make existing treatments more effective.

So what did I learn about clinical trials? Clinical trials provide the best standard for demonstrating that a certain behavioral treatment or medicine really works and is also safe for humans. In the area of drug addiction, there is a great need for safe and effective treatments that are tailored to the specific addiction, such as heroin, cocaine, or marijuana.

I also learned that drug addiction is a chronic, relapsing condition. It may be easy to break one cycle of addiction, but it is very difficult to keep the patient from falling into another. One analogy is to think about the obese patient who can lose weight in the short run, but over time experiences many cycles of weight loss and gain, without really achieving an ideal body weight.

In a similar way, the addicted patient will receive successful treatment to break the addiction, but will continue to have cycles of relapse, requiring further treatments. The addicted patient might have a relapse towards the initial drug, but it can also be for a new substance or a combination of substances (e.g. initial addiction to marijuana, then addiction to opiates, then addiction to opiates and prescription drugs). Thus I discovered the true goal of the CCTN is to promote the development of treatments, or a combination of treatments, that will not only treat the addiction, but will also prevent future relapses.

More on clinical trials

While clinical trials are a way to develop new treatments and advance the scientific and clinical knowledge base from humans who volunteer to participate, I also learned that the volunteers themselves can benefit from their participation in clinical trials. For example, patients with difficult diseases like cancer can participate in a clinical trial in hopes of finding a cure, or at least a more effective treatment.

For more information on clinical trials, NIH maintains a clinical trials registry known as, which contains information on trials supported by federal funds. There you can find information about a trial's purpose, who may participate, locations, and more.

A girl at a podium giving a speech.

Does This Make Me Look Fat?

About 4 years ago, my good friend tried to die by suicide; the reason behind it? She felt like she didn’t match up to the women you see in magazines; she felt like she wasn’t beautiful or skinny enough. The thing about these pictures: The models themselves don’t even look like their pictures—they are Photoshopped.

My name is Elisabeth Burton, Liz, and I’m a high school junior in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. I received the third place NIDA Addiction Science Fair award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in 2012 for my project on how media images influence our perception of our bodies. Because of my friend, I started noticing how often other girls and I talk about our bodies negatively. Mimi Nichter, Ph.D., an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, labeled this activity “Fat Talk,” a kind of social ritual among friends, where girls complain about their bodies as a call for support from their peers.

It’s Not Just Girls

Jessica Alba

Jessica Alba before and after Photoshop

Last year, I learned that the media affects girls in more ways than they realize. From my research, I found that the more girls talk “fat,” the more they perceive Photoshopped media images as attainable and real, lowering their body satisfaction.

This year, I learned that guys have this issue as well. They see Photoshopped images in the media that send the message that you need to be more muscular, more buff. I have found that some boys engage in something similar to “Fat Talk,” but instead of wanting to be skinnier, they aim to be bigger, buffer. I call this, “Buff Talk.”

When talking to some guys, I found that they feel a need to be more muscular, especially in sports, and this is leading to pressure to take steroids. The girls I talked to felt similar pressure, to purge (throw up after eating) and to take diet pills. I then began to wonder if Buff and Fat Talk, combined with seeing Photoshopped images, were related to teens’ risk assessments of steroids, purging, and diet pills. My research showed that it was related.

Specifically, I found that when the reasons for the Buff and Fat Talk are internal (“I am too fat” for girls; “I am too scrawny” for guys), teens are more likely to believe that occasional use of steroids or diet pills, or occasional purging, is low risk. The more they felt that the photographic images I showed them in my experimental design were attainable, real, and desirable, the more pressure they felt to look like these images, and the lower their self-esteem. In reality, these unrealistic and unattainable images can have damaging and dangerous effects.

I am happy to share my results and research with you and to reach more young people with this information. Hopefully getting more knowledge out there will help this problem. As young people, we need to realize that we are far more than how we look.

Body builder in a gym.

Nate Marquardt before Photoshop

Cover of "Muscle & Fitness Magazine".

Nate Marquardt after Photoshop


A young lady leaning on a railing.

Real Life: Student Athlete's Battle with Steroid Abuse, Taylor's Story

Let me introduce you to Taylor-a 17-year old, high school athlete from Plano, Texas. You might be a student-athlete yourself or have friends who are student athletes, so Taylor’s story might speak especially to you.

Taylor took his own life on July 15, 2003, as a result of abusing steroids. With Taylor’s death came the Taylor Hooton Foundation formed by his parents, family, and friends to honor his memory, after they became aware of the growing problem among high school athletes across the country.  Not too long before Taylor’s death, NIDA noticed a sharp increase in the use of steroids among male teens in the late 1990s (Monitoring the Future Survey, 2008).

Unfortunately, I never met Taylor—wish I had gotten the opportunity—but I have met his dad, Don Hooton. Don is the type of guy that many of us aspire to be. I’ve had the opportunity to work with him and the Taylor Hooton Foundation on behalf of NIDA. The picture to the right is us at a Nationals game in DC. I’m sitting with pitcher Garrett Mock (L) and center fielder Willie Harris (R) (Who said work can’t be fun?) We’ve been working together with the goal of sharing Taylor’s story and helping teens help one another.

In memory of Taylor, please share his story with a friend. With your help, we can prevent another tragedy.

Learn more about the science behind steroid use and how it can affect your body.

Bio: Brian Marquis is a Public Liaison Officer at NIDA who connects with organizations across the country to prevent drug abuse among youth with the help of NIDA publications and Web sites. In his spare time he enjoys playing sports, working out, going to the beach, and playing baseball with his son.

Brian Marquis and pitcher Garrett Mock (L) and center fielder Willie Harris (R)

Your Brain: Better Than Any Computer

Is your brain an organic computer? Your brain does a lot of things a computer does, like math, logic, analyzing input, creating output, and storing and retrieving information. Even at the cellular level, there are some striking similarities between brains and computers. Our brain has billions of neurons that convey and analyze electrical information. This information is binary, meaning a neuron either fires a burst of electricity or it does not fire at all. Likewise, computers transmit information electrically. And at the most basic level, computers work using bits of information that are also binary, where each bit of information is either a “1” or a “0,” nothing in between.

But brains do a lot of things that computers cannot. Our brains feel emotions, worry about the future, enjoy music and a good joke, taste the flavor of an apple, are self-aware, and fall in and out of love. Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 was not the result of a computer algorithm but, rather, of a brain making a great intellectual leap. If a brain is merely an organic computer, how can it do these things?

Part of the answer may be that whereas neurons process information like a computer, they are not the only type of brain cells processing information. Neurons only make up a small portion of your brain cells—about 15 percent.

Enter the All-Important Glia Cells

Text BoxThe vast majority of brain cells are called “glia” cells. For over 100 hundred years, most brain scientists saw glia as being relatively unimportant. Their function was believed to be mostly cleaning up “molecular trash” created by neurons. However, research is now showing that glia do much more than housecleaning. They are involved in learning and memory, and they help repair damaged brain areas. Glia can also communicate with neurons and with each other through “gap junctions” across large areas of the brain.

To illustrate how important glia are, almost every disease of the brain is partly or solely the result of glia malfunction. Scientists are now discovering that glia may also play a pivotal role in drug abuse, where changing glia activity may reduce drug abuse and addiction.

David Thomas is a NIDA scientist and Program Officer. He received a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from American University in Washington, DC, and has conducted research in analgesia (pain relief) and itch. He currently works at NIDA promoting research to find better pain medications that are not addictive

Brain made out of computer parts

Justin Bieber: A Warning to All Teens

Hello SBB readers. A few years ago, I did a blog post on the death of Michael Jackson—the pop star who seemed to have it all … but who succumbed to a death related to drug abuse. It was a sad tale about a child star who seemed to have grown up without a normal childhood—whose wealth did not protect him from the dangers of drugs. There have been others—Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger—we could go on and on.

So when Internet-sensation-turned-pop-star Justin Bieber was arrested this week on DUI charges, many of us who keep an eye on these things were saddened by the news. A young man who had everything going for him—who could have been a terrific role model for other teens—seems to instead have chosen a path to self-destruction. Arrested while street racing in a Lamborghini, the star admitted to police in Florida that he had been drinking, smoking marijuana, and taking prescription drugs all at the same time … and then got behind the wheel of a very fast car! Can you imagine? Mixing drugs and alcohol while street racing? This is behavior that turns your car into a dangerous weapon, and people could have been killed, including Bieber himself.

We do not know all the facts of the case—nor have we heard how Bieber will defend what he did—but those of us in the public health world hope that this incident will be a warning to all teens. Being a famous star does not protect you from the dangers of drugs and alcohol—it does not protect you from making stupid decisions. In fact, being a famous star can make you feel invincible—as if you are smarter than everyone else and can even outsmart the drugs you are using. And if you have ever envied someone like Bieber, remember that it is he who should envy all of you who make healthy choices every day, despite all the social pressure.

At NIDA, we will now be handling calls that come into the press office from reporters wanting to know more about mixing alcohol and drugs, or about drugged driving. Bieber’s sad situation will hopefully raise awareness that no one is safe from the dangers of drug abuse. Of course, Bieber deserves a defense, and we will watch what happens with his case. We do hope that if he does need treatment for substance abuse that he is man enough to seek it. Treatment does work—we see it every day. We also know that asking for treatment takes courage and character. How Bieber responds to these charges, and how he seeks to improve his personal situation, will be a test of that character. Maybe then he could truly become a role model of courage.

For more on drugged driving, check out this fact sheet.

Justin Bieber's Mug Shot

Leads for Treating Methamphetamine Addiction

My name is Yamini Naidu and I am a sophomore at Valley Catholic High School in Beaverton, Oregon. I have been working on a science project about Methamphetamine (METH) addiction for the past two years, beginning in the summer of 2009. To those who read this blog, I wanted to share my research experience on METH so you could learn about the great potential for biochemistry that exists in the world of drugs and addiction. I received guidance for this project from the Oregon Health and Science University, the Portland American Chemical Society, and my high school chemistry and biology teachers. My research focuses on developing a treatment for METH addiction through computer modeling.

I was inspired to do this science project because I have had an interest in the brain and in neurology ever since my uncle passed away from stroke as a complication of heart disease. I was intrigued by the fact that METH can cause strokes in young abusers by a process still unknown to science. I hope that my research will not only help in the treatment of METH addiction but also in the treatment of stroke. At present, there is no effective treatment for controlling METH craving during withdrawal and abstinence. The goal of my research is to find or create a small molecule that can potentially block METH from binding to a special activation site (called Site I). Site I is located on a receptor protein in the brain called hTAAR1 (human Trace Amine-Associated Receptor 1). METH normally binds to this receptor like a key fits a lock – only a key with that shape can fit in the TAAR1 lock.

While experimenting with computer models, I discovered two new activation sites (which I call Sites II and III) on the receptor protein. I predicted that certain chemicals that prefer to bind to these new sites can change the shape of the receptor, making it impossible for METH to stick. If the lock changes, the old key can’t fit! So, guided by the computer-generated 3D structures of the two new TAAR1 binding sites, I designed new compounds and verified by computer that they would match the shape of the new activation sites. These new compounds may be preferred over others because their chemical structures and shape give them a stronger potential to bind to the receptor. The Oregon Health and Science University has filed a patent application on my discovery of the two binding sites and my invention of the novel compounds. My future goals are to synthesize and evaluate the compounds that I designed as potential new medication leads in laboratory trials and eventually in human trials.

hTAAR1 Receptor Protein

I first presented my project at the regional Central Western Oregon Science Expo. Several expos and science fairs later, I was selected by Intel NWSE to represent the state of Oregon at ISEF as a finalist, where I competed with 1,500 high school student finalists from around the country and world. At ISEF, I was awarded the First Place Award of $3,000 in the biochemistry category. In addition, I was invited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse to give a talk on my research project in Washington, DC, this August. I have received recognition and rewards from many different organizations for my research, and I am happy now to share my great experience with more people.



Science fair winner.

Celebration of Science

On Saturday, September 8, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a very special event on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) main campus, called “Celebration of Science,” otherwise known as COS. Going to the main campus is always a treat. The beautiful gardens, the flowers, the trees! The event was held at the end of the summer, and the weather was perfect.

The 3-day event highlighted how important it is to fund biomedical research. COS featured scientists, patients, and caregivers speaking on topics such as HIV/AIDS, neuroscience, and rehabilitation medicine. There also were discussions with policymakers and industry leaders on the health and economic benefits of biomedical research. The audience included elected officials, heads of Government agencies, philanthropists, leaders of academic research centers, distinguished scientists, and the media.

The event was quite a production, with a full camera crew, lights, and stage sets. NIH volunteers were needed as backup. I was lucky enough to be paired with an NIH employee working in the Office of Science Policy in the Office of the Director, which is where Dr. Francis S. Collins, the Director of NIH, spends his work day. I learned a lot of valuable information about what it is like to work there.

One of my favorite aspects of the event was the patient advocacy presentations. A guest editor at a popular magazine shared her story about the difficulty of caring for a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s. Another panel included three people living with AIDS, each of whom shared their personal stories of how they’ve experienced stigma, isolation, and prejudice because of their HIV+ status.

It’s so inspiring that these people share their stories in an effort to educate those around them. And these stories put a human face on all the statistics shared at COS, driving home how essential biomedical research is to helping people who are struggling with both rare and common diseases.

Zofia Klosowska, a graduate of the University of Maryland, was a summer intern in NIDA's Office of Science Policy and Communications. Now she is a Research Training Award Fellow at NIDA's Intramural Research Program labs in Baltimore, Maryland, where she works with scientists looking into environmental and individual reasons people use drugs and relapse after treatment.  Read Zofia’s previous blog post, Life as an Intern at NIDA’s Public Information and Liaison Branch.

People holding hands on a stage.

NIDA News: Back to the Future?

It's that time of year again-time to announce the results of NIDA's annual Monitoring the Future survey. For the 34th year, researchers went into classrooms all over the country and asked young people to fill out surveys about their drug use. This year 46,097 8th, 10th and 12th graders participated—that's a lot of teens! As the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this is one of my favorite times of the year because we hold a big news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC to let the public know what the researchers learned. Here's the news this year, good and bad.

The good news is that methamphetamine use is at its lowest since the survey started tracking it 10 years ago. At that time, 4.7% of teens said they had tried meth in the previous month, but this year, just 1.2% said they had used it. Teens are also smoking cigarettes less than they used to. About 1 in 10 high school seniors say they smoke every day, compared to 4 in 10 in 1999. This drop translates to longer, healthier lives for today's teens.

But of course the survey also shows some not-so-good things. So while cigarette smoking is down, it looks as if more kids are chewing tobacco. Believe it or not, more than 6% of 10th graders say they use smokeless tobacco. Smokeless tobacco products contain many toxins, as well as high levels of nicotine (3-4 times more than cigarettes), which makes them addictive. Not to mention what it does to your teeth and breath. Here are some more facts.

Also, too many teens are still abusing prescription drugs, which is not good. Unless a medicine is prescribed for you and you take it the way your doctor tells you to, prescription pills can be as dangerous as street drugs. In fact, more people are dying from accidental overdoses of prescription drugs than from cocaine and heroin combined. We have done some blogs about this in the past.

And for the first time, NIDA's Monitoring the Future survey asked 12th graders about their use of salvia, an herb common to southern Mexico and Central and South America—5.7% of high school seniors had abused it in the past year. People who abuse salvia typically experience hallucinations or episodes that resemble a type of mental illness known as psychosis (sigh-ko-sis), which can really be scary.

For more information on this year's survey results, go to the NIDA home page and click on the "Monitoring the Future" link.

This is a guest post from the Director of NIDA, Dr. Nora Volkow.

Student group picture; Image Courtesy of David McKay

National Drug Facts Week “Drug Awareness Pep Rally”—Success in Galveston County, Texas!

Drug awareness has been an important subject to me since I was a young girl. My parents taught me from a young age to stand up for what I believe in, no matter what. I have always felt that young adults are under a lot of pressure from friends and family to make good grades and smart decisions. Kids are always told what they should do with no explanations why, and I feel that if we educate children about the consequences of their actions, they might make a change.

My senior project at O’Connell College Preparatory High School was a “Drug Awareness Pep Rally” during National Drug Facts Week 2013, for which I teamed up with the Bay Area Council on Drugs and Alcohol in Galveston, Texas. I honestly was very nervous because I did not know if my fellow students would enjoy what I had planned. I set up tables with incentives and NIDA’s “Shatter the Myths” booklets so that the faculty and staff could grab whatever they wanted as they walked in. I asked for three volunteers from each class to represent their class for the “National Drug IQ Challenge”—a quiz about drug facts—that I made into a game show. I also recruited helpers to hand out the quizzes and throw mini basketballs into the crowd to pump everyone up.

The incentive to win the game show was a pizza party to the class that made the most points. All of the contestants were cheating off the students in the crowd, so I quickly made them flip around to the other side of the table. The game show format made a tough subject seem fun, and both the teachers and students benefited from the quiz.

The next part of the “Drug Awareness Pep Rally” was making posters with a witty statement that could be put up around the school, like “pot mayk you stoopid.” The classes were judged on their posters by creativity and penmanship. Surprisingly, every student really got into it and helped out. While posters were being made, basketballs and Frisbees were flying all over the gym, just like a pep rally before a football game. The teachers decided who had the best poster and that class also won a pizza party.

Afterwards, students and teachers told me how fun and informative my pep rally was. My goal was to make drug awareness fun for a school full of young adults, and it worked! I hope in the future that some other students will take on this project and help spread drug awareness throughout schools in our area and around the country. 

Emily Low, a senior at O'Connell High School, adopted National Drug Facts Week 2013 as her senior project and coordinated a pep rally against drugs and a poster contest. Z5HFBURU9V9M

Emily Low

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death and the Terrible Toll of Addiction

In early February, movie fans lost another great talent to heroin. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred as Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, died at age 46 of an apparent heroin overdose.

Hoffman’s death is a sad reminder of some of the harsh realities of addiction—a disease that 17.7 million Americans struggle with. His death, coming about 6 months after Cory Monteith’s overdose on heroin and alcohol, also emphasizes that addiction can affect everyone—young and old, rich and poor.

Hoffman’s overdose death is tragic, and we all feel the loss. But we must remember that many overdose deaths don’t make the national news. Every day in America, 105 people die from drug overdose. 

Hoffman’s history with drug abuse also reminds us that addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease. That means it can last for a long time and comes back over and over. Having gotten treatment in his early 20s, Hoffman is reported to have stayed away from drugs for over 20 years. He relapsed recently after developing a prescription drug problem that led to heroin use. He sought treatment for his addiction in May 2013. Drugs change the brain, and even decades of not using drugs may not reverse those changes.

Hoffman’s case also reminds us that, as with any other chronic disease (such as heart disease or diabetes), treatment must often be repeated or may need to be ongoing. In the case of opioid addiction (which includes heroin and prescription painkillers), there are effective medications that can help.

We do not yet know the details of Hoffman’s relapse or what his treatment last year consisted of. We do know, though, that his path from prescription drug use to heroin is more and more common. People who shift from abusing prescription opioids to heroin may be driving the current rise in heroin use being seen across the country, especially in young people.

Here at NIDA, we are committed to continuing to research effective treatments for addiction. To learn more about drug abuse treatment for young people, see our new publication, Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.

Nora D. Volkow, M.D., NIDA Director

Learning About Drugs From the Inside

My name is Sharlett, and I’m from Washington State. Recently, I completed an internship for NIDA in Washington, DC. I worked behind the scenes with the communications experts, which means I was involved with organizing and publicizing different cool events and publications that NIDA offers you.

One of my most interesting projects was helping to spread the word about National Drug Facts Week, which occurred last November. One of my biggest tasks was to promote the “National Drug IQ Challenge en Español”—to encourage teens, their parents, and friends to take the quiz and test their knowledge about drug abuse and addiction. This was the first year the Challenge was offered in Spanish, and everyone has been really excited about it.

I am thrilled I got to be a part of such a great organization. I was offered the chance to work for NIDA in late July, and I knew right away it was an awesome opportunity. Every day, I got to use what I learned in college to promote drug awareness and help teens stay safe. I think it is crucial to make facts about drugs easily available to teens to counteract all the myths that are floating around.

Before coming to NIDA, my knowledge about drugs and drug abuse was very limited. I knew that drugs harm the body and that they can lead to illness or even death. I knew that one of my favorite comedians, Chris Farley, died from a drug overdose in 1997. I began to form perceptions and beliefs about drug abuse, but my “drug IQ” was very basic. After working at NIDA for just a few weeks, I learned some surprising new facts like:

Drug addiction is a disease. Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain—they change its structure and how it works.

A girl flagging a cab down.

Marijuana can be addictive. The changes from using marijuana or any drug are different for each person. For marijuana, about 1 in 11 people who use it become addicted, and that rate goes up if you start young and if you smoke a lot. To learn the facts about marijuana, check out the booklet, Marijuana: Facts for Teens.

Not all drugs are illegal. Tobacco and alcohol are both addictive drugs and can cause serious health problems. Similarly, prescription drugs, which are meant to help people with health problems, can become addictive and are being abused at high rates among all age groups, including teens.

If more people knew the facts, they could better understand drugs and their consequences. I know I do. The next National Drug Facts Week starts January 28, 2013. I’ll be watching the National Drug Facts Week Web site to see what new and interesting things NIDA has to offer.


Sharlett in front of ocean

Great Leaders: Not Just Historical Figures

“Today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders.”

I know, I know—you’ve heard that before. However, I’m here to tell you that this statement is not entirely true.

Today’s young people can be today’s leaders.

I have worked with Youth to Youth International for over 25 years, and I interact with some of the most intelligent, resourceful, and effective leaders of all time. All of them are youth.

Leadership isn’t reserved for any one group or age bracket. Leadership is available to anyone who believes they can make the world a better place.  

Martin Luther King, Jr. Was a Leader—And So Are You

I’ve asked young people all over the country to tell me who they think are the great leaders throughout time. Almost every time, they say: Martin Luther King, Jr., JFK, Ghandi, Rosa Parks, Abe Lincoln, and Mother Teresa—and almost always Martin Luther King, Jr. is the first. Now, these people were great leaders, but this does cause me some concern.

That is because these people are all famous historical figures. Teens never answer by saying their mothers, fathers, friends, or even themselves. Maybe teens have the idea that leadership is something that “others” do, not something in which they can participate. It also concerns me that the people they list made their contributions years and years ago. We all seem to be waiting for the next “great leader.”

I want teens to understand they have the qualities and skills to become leaders, and that effective leadership isn’t about who you are, but what you do. The fact remains—the most effective way to lead is to demonstrate the behavior you want to see.

Ty Sells is the Director of Training for Youth to Youth International. He has worked in the field of youth development for over 25 years and speaks at schools all over the United States. He has developed a variety of presentations, workshops, and trainings for youth and the adults that work with them.   

Youth to Youth is a community-based drug prevention and youth leadership program focusing primarily on middle and high school students. The goal of its many projects is to harness the powerful influence of peers, encouraging young people to live free of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs.

Teens standing in a circle around a board game.

So... Why Do People Like Drugs?

Is there something magical about drugs and alcohol with us humans? So what's our fascination and why do some of us like them so much?! Actually, before we try and answer that one, let me just say: we are not alone. Some of the drugs we use, abuse, and become addicted to today were actually "discovered" by animals first.

For example, you know why we have coffee today? Well, the "legend of the dancing goats" says that coffee beans were first discovered in a field in Ethiopia by a goat herder who noticed that his goats were acting weird sometimes, running around and dancing wildly. He couldn't figure out why and so decided to study them. He saw them eating small red berries on a certain shrub found in the area—turns out they were coffee plants. After eating the berries with the coffee beans inside, the goats started their "dancing." Legend also has it that the goat herder also started eating the berries and dancing with them!

Photo of a cat with a chicken hat on.

Plenty of similar stories and observations have been made of other animals that seem to get "high" from naturally occurring drugs or fermented fruits. Cats are attracted to the valerian plant and to catnip, which seems to give them extreme pleasure. In parts of Africa, the marula fruit ripens, and animals—from monkeys to elephants—are attracted to the overripe and fermenting fruits that make them act "funny." Birds have been seen sitting on smoking tree trunks after bush fires and seem to be intoxicated—they get dizzy and fall off of the smoldering trunk only to get up and do it over and over.

Back to our question…so why do we (or at least some of us) and our animal counterparts like these natural-occurring substances and synthetic or man-made drugs? The answer is simple…blame it on our brains! We have evolved a brain that allows us to see, hear, taste, move, think, etc., and also to repeat things that feel good. That happens because a part of our brain sends out feel-good signals when we do something we enjoy, like eating good food, playing a video game, kicking a goal in soccer, listening to our favorite music, or going upside-down on a roller coaster. The system that says to us: "hey, that was good, do it again!" is called the "reward system".

Turns out that alcohol and drugs affect this system really well; they are effective at going right to our brain's "reward system" and putting it into high gear. This very effective stimulation of the reward system is why many people can become addicted to drugs, since feeling good is what drives much of our behavior. Drugs, in a sense, trick the system that has evolved for helping us in our world and instead can turn our world upside down.

As a scientist and Division Director at NIDA, I am committed to learning more about how drugs exert their effects in the brain so that we can come up with better ways to prevent young people from getting "tricked" by drugs and sliding into addiction without even realizing it.

Photo of John Frascella: Director of NIDA's Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research.

As Director of NIDA's Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research, Dr. Joe Frascella heads up a program that supports studies in humans to advance our understanding of brain and behavior in drug abuse and addiction. Studies are mainly on neuroscience, adolescent development, and treatment, with a goal of translating research results into real-world use.


Can It Be Bad If It’s Natural?

“Marijuana is natural, so how can it be harmful?”

Lots of teens ask us this question, and it’s a good one—a great question, in fact.

People often think that substances found in nature are automatically safer than chemicals that are made in a laboratory or a factory. It’s not that simple, unfortunately. Lots of beneficial substances are human made (medicines, for example), and lots of harmful ones come straight from the earth.

Tobacco is a great example. Like marijuana, tobacco is a plant whose leaves have been dried, crumbled, and smoked for thousands of years. It was used in religious rituals by Native Americans, who believed that exhaling tobacco smoke carried their thoughts and prayers to heaven; they also believed it possessed medicinal properties.

Once American settlers began growing the crop and exporting it to Europe and the rest of the world, tobacco enjoyed a reputation kind of like marijuana does today: Some monarchs and religious leaders thought it was unhealthy and morally corrupt and tried to ban it; but lots of people enjoyed the “precious weed” and sided with the physicians of the time, who actually praised its healing virtues—claiming that smoking tobacco could cure most forms of sickness and even protect a person from getting the plague!

It wasn’t until around the 1950s that modern medicine, armed with better science, established the truth about smoking tobacco—it can cause diseases like lung cancer and it is highly addictive. No one would now argue that tobacco is safe, let alone good for you. But it is “natural.”

Marketers of foods and other products use the “natural equals good for you” assumption all the time to manipulate people’s buying behavior. For instance, when shoppers see the “All Natural” label on a food, they tend to think it’s good for them even if it contains lots of unhealthy sugar or fat—both of which are, like tobacco, “natural.”

We still don’t know whether smoking marijuana causes lung cancer like tobacco does, but strong evidence shows that it does other bad stuff: It interferes with thinking and memory, it can lower your IQ if you smoke it regularly in your teen years, and—as a result of these and other things—it can set you up to miss achieving your full potential in life.

Is a “natural” way to hurt your brain any better than an unnatural one?

Eric Wargo is a science writer at NIDA. Before coming to NIDA, he wrote for an association of psychological scientists, people who study all aspects of the mind and human behavior. He is excited to work at NIDA, because NIDA scientists study the brain, and the brain is at the root of everything we humans do.

Marijuana in a greenhouse

Reflecting on Experiences as a NIDA Fall Intern

I am finishing my Ph.D. in May 2014 in a field housed under the umbrella of social sciences, called conflict analysis and resolution. The field provides the foundation and skills necessary to identify areas of conflict and resolve them without the need for taking legal action. The goal is to ensure that there is a win-win outcome for the parties in dispute. I have always been interested in conducting research in the field of health sciences as well and had planned to attend medical school after my Ph.D. program is complete. Last fall, I had a chance to intern with NIDA, where I had a personal, professional, and academic epiphany.

Having the opportunity to intern at NIDA helped me realize what I want to study after I finish my degree program; the field of public health.

Interning at NIDA allowed me the opportunity to connect with people who are already researching what I want to research in the future and has also helped me clarify the academic path that I have to follow, which will save me nearly a decade of post-doctoral education (i.e., no medical school and residency)! While at NIDA, I noticed that public health, specifically substance abuse in our society, causes a lot of conflict (such as relationship and family conflicts, financial conflicts, and legal conflicts). Public health also provides many avenues for research and discovery, as well as for creating tools that can help practitioners to assist people who are addicted to drugs.

If you would like to drop me a line or ask me further questions on how my internship at NIDA helped in furthering my passion for public health research, please feel free to email me at!

When drugs are used, they make you slow,

The more you learn, the more you grow!

Read more blog posts from past NIDA interns: Zofia, Joanna, Yamini, Sharlett, Michael, Yvonne, Sarah, and Giselle.

Carl M. Letamendi, M.B.A., Ph.D. (ABD).

SADD Florida Teens "Share a Dose of Reality" at the National Rx Drug Abuse Summit

Did you know that of the top 22 substances teens abused across the country in 2011, 8 were prescription drugs often found in the family medicine cabinet? “Abuse” of prescription drugs includes taking them without a prescription, even if you’re taking them for medical reasons. It can also mean sharing your prescription drugs with friends or taking them in a way not intended, including to get high.

Most of the prescription drugs that teens abused were addictive painkillers not even on the list of drugs of abuse a decade ago! Some teens originally got these prescriptions for legitimate reasons, such as having their wisdom teeth pulled or experiencing sports injuries. But, unfortunately, many did not realize how dangerous prescription drugs can be when abused, and they wound up addicted or in the hospital.

We are the University High School Florida SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) Chapter, and the facts, as well as the prescription drug abuse problem in our home state, inspired us to become teen ambassadors for NIDA’s PEERx campaign about prescription drug abuse prevention.

The problem in our state is huge. Last year, prosecutors called Florida the “epicenter” of an epidemic of prescription drug abuse in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2010, prescription painkiller sales per person were more than three times higher in Florida than in the state with the lowest sales per person (Illinois).

The SADD Florida teens’ philosophy is, “If the problem is mine, the solution also begins with me.” With that in mind, we were really excited to represent our fellow peers and SADD as the official “PEERx teen ambassadors” during the first-ever National Rx Drug Abuse Summit in Orlando, Florida.

Photo of a girl interviewing another girl.

We got a VIP experience during our entire time at the national summit! We met the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Regina Benjamin; the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, R. Gil Kerlikowske; Congressman Hal Rogers from Kentucky; and the Director of NIDA, Dr. Nora Volkow.

Everyone was curious about our experiences and ideas. Stamping people’s hands at the exhibit with “CYP” helped to create curiosity about the “Choose Your Path” videos that we displayed at the PEERx booth. Throughout the 2 days, we talked to people who came to the PEERx booth and told them all about the NIDA campaign, which includes an Activity Guide for teens, fact sheets, cool designs you can download to make t-shirts (we were wearing them), and lots more.

We assisted 100 adults who attended a workshop about PEERx and helped provide them with a “teen perspective” on fun and creative ways to bring PEERx into their community organization or school. We were also interviewed by local television and newspaper reporters, who asked us about the PEERx initiative, the prescription drug abuse problem in our area, and what we are doing about it.

This was a fantastic experience that we will never forget. Thanks NIDA!!!

SADD Florida advisor Sherry Viersen (far left) and teen ambassadors Naya Zapata, Destiny Ramos, and Julissa Pardomo are joined by U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, M.D., M.B.A. (center).

Optogenetics: An Enlightening Experience in High School Research

I remember my sophomore year in high school, feeling a life-changing moment of excitement when I read Dr. Karl Diesseroth’s work on optogenetics, a new field that involves studying the brain with light. I could never have imagined it would mark the beginning of a journey that would lead to presenting my research to NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow and her colleagues just 2 years later.

Along my journey, I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors from Yale University who truly cared about my interests. Professors Amy Arnsten and Ralph DiLeone are brilliant leaders in neuroscience research, yet they still found time to generously mentor. I performed optogenetics research in Dr. DiLeone’s laboratory, working closely with postdoctoral fellow Dr. Benjamin Land, who is a great, generous mentor.

Shedding Light on Connections Between Brain and Behavior

With optogenetics, light-sensitive chemicals (first discovered in algae) are inserted into the DNA of specific cells, giving us the ability to control those cells. In the project I worked on, we used this method to modify particular neurons in the prefrontal cortex of genetically altered mice. The prefrontal cortex is a region involved in regulating behavior and self-control.

We delivered blue laser light via fiber optics to the animals’ prefrontal cortex to control the timing of their behavior. This approach suggested a whole new way the brain could be repaired effectively, using light to target specific areas causing the trouble—instead of using medications that could affect the whole brain. By pairing genetics with light, optogenetics allows us to design new ways to repair the brain in people with brain disorders.

Undertaking such research felt especially compelling to me because of my desire to help people with difficulties stemming from disorders affecting their prefrontal cortex. Millions of individuals suffer from such disorders, which include drug addictions, schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. These conditions might be better managed or even cured in the future with new treatments growing out of optogenetic research.

Sharing My Research and My Passion

As a result of these experiences, I’ve presented my research many times to different audiences. I have talked to students from elementary through high school, participated in Connecticut state science competitions, presented at a regional competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then at the George Washington University as a national finalist in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Engineering, at the American Academy of Neurology, and finally at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where I received the NIDA Addiction Science Fair Award. Presenting to Dr. Volkow and her colleagues proved to be one of the greatest opportunities. I loved responding to their rapid-fire questions after giving my presentation. I also had the chance to tour the National Institutes of Health campus and Intramural Research Program laboratories.

Winning this award offered me a window to seeing the best translational research in action—applying what we learn from basic research to develop treatments and then try  them out in clinical trials. It seems there are no limits to the questions that could be imagined and tested and the scientific inquiry that could be accomplished on the road ahead.

John Solder is currently a freshman at Yale University. The optogenetics project he worked on is part of a manuscript he co-authored, to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). He will be continuing research in this area.

A man and a women presenting an award to a young man.

NIDA Goes to School: Teens Become the Teachers

Hello, my name is Christian and I was the graphic designer for NIDA’s new Drug Facts: Shatter the Myths booklet. The goal for me was to create something visually that teens would enjoy reading, rather than being made to read. Teens are very savvy when it comes to messages, so we wanted to present the information in a way that was easy to understand and interesting to look at. I was lucky enough to go to a high school with a team from NIDA to get students’ feedback on our work. It was really valuable, and a lot of their ideas made it into the final design. We learned some key things like:

  • Teens didn't like preachy messages, they wanted facts.
  • They liked photos of teens outside school, not in school, in situations that they could relate to.
  • They cared about design and told us what worked and what didn’t work for them.
  • Several commented that they didn’t like being talked down to, or being imitated (“you’re trying too hard”) by the use of texting shorthand in the booklet. KWIM?

All of the responses we received, positive and negative, helped to make the booklet better. Connecting with teens was vital in creating the piece, and we hope it helps keep you informed.

Christian Cabrera, age 34, is an art director at MFM Design and helped design the Drug Facts: Shatter the Myths booklet with NIDA. He has a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Media Arts and Design.

Tell us what you think about the Drug Facts: Shatter The Myths booklet in the comments.

Christian Cabrera

Understanding Learning and Memory

What’s your new geometry teacher’s name? How do you get to your friend’s house? Where did you put your smartphone? Have you noticed that practice makes you play the piano better?

Every day, we learn and remember things that we experience in our lives. If we didn’t, we would get lost, not be able to sing along to our favorite song, and not pass that important midterm exam.

But how do we learn new things? And how does the brain store the memories so that we can recall them at a later time?

By studying the process of learning and memory, neuroscientists hope to be able to find treatments for those who lose their memories because of aging or diseases like Alzheimer’s. We may also be able to help those who suffer anxiety and depression that are triggered by bad memories from traumas like childhood abuse, car accidents, or war. We might also help people in drug abuse recovery stay off drugs by extinguishing memories that stimulate their desire to seek and take more drugs.

A Look at the Hippocampus

Neuroscientists are learning more about the process of learning and memory by studying the hippocampus, a brain region involved in forming and retaining memories. Neuroscientists don’t know exactly how learning and memory occur in the brain, but whenever learning occurs, neurons in the hippocampus become active. Learning is thought to be due to an increase in the activity between many neurons that communicate with each other.

How do neurons communicate? When a nerve impulse reaches a neuron, the neuron is activated and releases a chemical, called a neurotransmitter, at the synapse, or the place where two neurons connect. The neurotransmitter crosses the synapse, where it connects to a receptor molecule located on the adjacent neuron. This binding of the neurotransmitter activates the second neuron, which sends a neurotransmitter to the next neuron, and so on. This process continues from neuron to neuron as the nerve impulse travels throughout the brain.

Neuroscientists have discovered that when you are not learning, a nerve impulse will cause a neuron to have a low level of activity, but that during learning, the electrical activity between two neurons will be increased. This phenomenon is called long-term potentiation or LTP, and researchers have found that animals do not learn when LTP is blocked.

One of the goals for neuroscience research is to be able to manipulate LTP and, as a result, also influence learning and memory formation. Someday neuroscientists hope to be able to help your grandmother find her glasses and purse, to reduce the stress and anxiety that is felt by those who have memories of traumatic events, and even to extinguish the memories that cause a person to want to continue to use drugs.

Roger Sorensen, Ph.D., M.P.A., is a NIDA program official who directs a grant program that supports basic science research on the physiological effects of drugs of abuse on the brain and nervous system. He was trained in neurochemistry and expects that someday scientists will be able to determine how this complex organ known as the brain makes us think, feel, and be who we are.

Boy holding his head while reading a book

Colleges Offer Addiction Science Programs So Students Can Help Tackle Drug Addiction

Have you ever thought about a career in Addiction Science? Many teens across the country are interested in learning more about this field so they can tackle one of America's most challenging problems. Some colleges and universities are offering academic training in addiction to help support students with this career goal.

Because of the growing demand for qualified professionals in the field of Addiction Science, UA’s College of Human Environmental Sciences (CHES) offers an academic minor in Addiction and Recovery to students interested in learning more about the field. Many of the students in this minor plan to go on to become doctors, nurses, counselors, or researchers to help individuals and families struggling with this powerful problem and to challenge the stigma of addiction.

Students in the minor learn how addiction develops and persists over time, and they learn about prevention, intervention, and recovery as well. Students receive the most accurate and up-to-date information about addiction and recovery so they can become true leaders in the field. In fact, our students read many of the resources developed by NIDA!

Dr. Tricia Witte, Faculty member at the University of Alabama (UA).
Dr. Tricia Witte. Photo by Teresa Golson, Office of Information Technology, UA
There are many opportunities for people to become licensed or certified in many areas, such as addiction counseling or addiction prevention. In several states, you can get a certification with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Visit the UA website to learn more about the minor and be sure to click on the Student Profile link to meet our students! You can also check with other colleges you’re interested in attending to see if they offer similar programs.

To hear more about high school kids who are already involved in addiction science, check out NIDA's Addiction Science Awards.

Dr. Tricia Witte obtained a B.A. in Psychology and an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Loyola University in Maryland and earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Arkansas. She is a licensed psychologist and she coordinates the minor in Addiction and Recovery at the University of Alabama.

Dr. Tricia Witte, Faculty member at the University of Alabama (UA), with a student.

Mindset Over Matter

Hi, my name is Eric Wargo and I’m a new science writer here at NIDA. Before coming to NIDA, I wrote for an association of psychological scientists, people who study all aspects of the mind and human behavior. I was excited to come to NIDA, because NIDA scientists study the brain, and the brain is at the root of everything we humans do.

The brain is almost like magic: It has the ability to transform thoughts and feelings into real physical actions and physical states like health or illness. And something as simple as an idea or a belief can have a real effect on your well-being or how well you do in school or in your relationships. I’ve always been especially interested in ways people can improve themselves—and even achieve many of the things some people seek through drugs—through activities that change their brains. SBB asked me to write some guest columns on this topic. I hope you enjoy them!

Learning Changes the Brain

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know all about how drugs change the brain. But lots of things besides drugs change the brain, and lots of those brain changes are good.

Learning is the #1 positive thing that changes your brain. Something as small as a new experience or learning a new word rapidly creates or reinforces new connections between neurons, even hundreds or thousands of them, in real time. You aren’t exactly the same person now, after reading the last sentence, as you were before you read it—because your brain changed a little.

And guess what—just knowing that fact can actually make you smarter.

Challenge Your Mindset

A few years ago, I was blown away when I heard a really amazing lecture by a psychologist named Carol Dweck. She has studied how people’s “mindsets”—specifically the beliefs they hold about whether someone’s intelligence is changeable—have a strong effect on how well they succeed in school and in life. People who think that intelligence is just something you are born with (or not) don’t apply themselves as much when it comes to learning. Even if they are told they are smart, they may not try as hard and actually may not ultimately achieve as much or handle challenges as well as those who believe that smartness depends mainly on how much effort they put in.

Dweck tested this idea with junior high school students. It can be a tough period in life, as you may have found out yourself. A lot of kids who were happy and did well in elementary school suffer setbacks when they hit junior high—they become frustrated and unhappy and stressed, and where they were once good students, they suddenly see their grades go down. In one study, Dweck and a couple of her colleagues found that students who held the “intelligence is changeable” mindset were more motivated to learn and actually performed better in math over the course of 7th and 8th grades than did those who believed their intelligence was a permanent, fixed quantity.

So Dweck and her team designed an intervention to help students whose math grades were falling. Over the course of 8 weeks, a group of these students were taught about how the brain works, including the way learning actually builds new and stronger connections between neurons and how the brain is like a muscle that can be strengthened through the exercise of learning. A comparison group also learned about the brain and study skills but without the emphasis on the brain’s changeability.

You can probably guess what happened: The students who learned about how their brains change actually reversed their plummeting math grades—they started doing better! Those who were not exposed to this idea continued doing poorly in math. (Dweck has now taken her intervention, called “Brainology,” and developed it for use by schools and teachers.)

The bottom line: Mindsets are super-powerful in setting people either on a path to success or on a path to something less. People who (correctly) believe their brains change go farther, do more, and adapt better to life’s challenges. So help spread the word to your peers: Your brain changes and you can choose how you change it.

Next time, I’ll talk about some cool things you can do to change and hone your brain.

Eric Wargo writes about the brain and addiction for NIDA’s Office of Science Policy and Communications. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology, and in his spare time, he writes and blogs about science, history, movies, and other cool topics.

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Parents: Can They Deter Teens' Online Risky Behavior?

In 5th grade, I was the victim of cyberbullying, when a classmate wrote hurtful instant messages about me. Shortly after, social networking became the rage, and sexting and cyberbullying became more prevalent. When I joined Facebook, I was surprised by what my peers were doing online, with little regard for the social, emotional, and legal consequences of their actions.

This experience led me to work on a number of behavioral science projects, including “OMG: Look Who Joined Facebook! The Relationship between Parenting and Adolescent Risk Behaviors,” as part of my high school’s independent research program. I was particularly interested in ways that parents could minimize the risks teens take online. My study was the first to look at whether the same factors that predict adolescent risk behaviors offline would predict them online. My study looked specifically at the relationship between what parents know about their children’s lives and how that affects adolescent risk behaviors offline and online.

I worked on this project for 2 years, under the guidance of Dr. Allyson Weseley, the coordinator of secondary research at Roslyn High School, and two distinguished experts in the field of psychology: Dr. Larry Rosen and Dr. Loes Keisjers, both of whom provided me guidance by email and video chatting.

Does Parental Involvement Affect Teens’ Online Behavior?

In preparing for my study, I learned that teens are less likely to engage in risky behaviors in real life when parents know their whereabouts, activities, and associations. However, few studies examined the relationship between parenting and adolescent risk behaviors online. While it had been reported that our parents try to stay involved in our online lives, they are, for the most part, unaware of what we do on social networking sites.

I hypothesized that adolescents who report high levels of parental involvement and knowledge of their activities would be more likely to report fewer offline and online risky behaviors. I surveyed 133 high school students, from Long Island, New York, by having them complete a 74-item questionnaire.

Friend Your Folks: It May Save You in the End

My findings confirmed that parents learn about their kids in many ways: getting information from their children, their children’s friends, and their friends’ parents; setting limits on where their children can go, what they can do, and with whom; and maintaining a close relationship with their children.

My research also confirmed that adolescents whose parents are informed would be less likely to engage in offline risky behaviors. It is likely that when our parents know more about our lives, they are better able to focus on taking measures to prevent risky behaviors. The research findings indicate that teens who participate in fewer risky behaviors are more likely to share more information with their parents because they have nothing to hide. My findings also suggest that parental prevention only works in situations when parents are close to their children and work to maintain open lines of communication.

Risky Business: Online Versus Offline

It is possible that our parents do not fully appreciate the dangers of various online activities or know how to regulate them. In terms of online risky behaviors, the study results showed that parental knowledge in-and-of-itself was not particularly useful in preventing participation in risky behaviors online. This finding is significant because it highlights differences between parenting in the online world versus the real world.

Offline, teens are limited from participating in various risky behaviors by clear rules set by parents, schools, and governments; yet, when online, adolescents’ activities can go unchecked. Because of the endless freedom social networking can bring to adolescents, parents must take steps to control teens’ activities online as a deterrent. Therefore, parents need to have a good understanding of the online world, as well as a level of comfort on social networking sites.

Given the constantly evolving risks of the online world, this area will continue to need further research, to help identify additional preventive measures by parents to help keep their children safe in both the real and virtual worlds.

Benjamin Kornick is a freshman at Columbia University in New York City. At the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), he competed with more than 1,500 students from around the world and was awarded 1st Place and Best in Category in behavioral sciences. His research was also recognized by the American Psychological Association and NIDA, which awarded him the 2nd place Addiction Science Award. Following ISEF, his research was also recognized in a legislative resolution from the New York State Senate and was recently submitted for publishing in the Journal of Adolescence.

A young man at a show booth.

Association of Women in Forensic Science

The idea for me hosting the event for the National Drug Facts Week (NDFW) came from my career as a forensic chemist—that is someone who examines drugs and chemical evidence related to crimes. In my job, I have direct contact with analyzing controlled substances such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and other illicit and diverted drugs.

I am also a training coordinator. One of my duties in this role is to interact with high school students, but I noticed a lot of them use street slang terms for drugs and are misinformed about drugs of abuse.

Since I’ve ordered publications from NIDA in the past to assist with my drug education program, I was on the Web site recently and noticed National Drug Facts Week: Shatter the Myths advertised there. I was immediately intrigued by this initiative because I have been analyzing drugs for 10 years, I love what I do, and I express that by giving back to the community and sharing my knowledge about forensic science and drug education.

The first NDFW event held in Philadelphia will be at the recreation center in the community that I grew up in. The planning process required me to reach out to various businesses, schools, community centers, and radio stations. So far I’ve been a little discouraged because not everyone will support your cause, but what motivates me is my passion for what I do. I'm also motivated by this quote: “My hunger for success is fueled by my passion." :-)

So, if you are a teen and live near the area, you’re more than welcome to participate!

Antoinette T. Thwaites is a Laboratory Program Scientist and a founder of the Association of Women in Forensic Science. She also serves as a training coordinator for the Philadelphia Police Department/Forensic Science Center.

Association of Women in Forensic Science Logo

The Power of You(th)

Did you know that alcohol is the most commonly used drug by youth—more than all illegal drugs combined? AND that teen alcohol use kills more than 5,000 people each year?

You have the power to change that! MADD created the Power of You(th) program to empower teens like you to influence your peers and younger kids not to drink before age 21, and never to get in the car with someone who’s been drinking. Use your power to take a stand against underage drinking.

The Power of You(th) is about teens making a difference in their communities by sharing how underage drinking is especially risky. There are a lot of ways to get involved:

  1. Participate in the Power of You(th) Video Contest.* Each year, MADD holds a video contest and asks teens to create a 1-minute or less video telling the story of why underage drinking isn’t cool. This year’s winner got an iPad 2!

Check out the winning video, created by 17-year-old Jason Girouard from Brimfield, Massachusetts:

Be on the lookout in fall 2013 for the next Power of You(th) video contest!

  1. Download The 411 on Teen Drinking booklet. Learn about underage drinking by downloading The 411 on Teen Drinking, created by MADD and National Presenting Sponsor State Farm. The free booklet tells you how alcohol affects teen brains differently than it does adult brains and how to talk to your parents about alcohol.
  1. Pledge to stand up against underage drinking. The Power of You(th) pledge is a promise not to drink under age 21 or ride in a car with someone who’s been drinking.

* NIDA is not a sponsor of the MADD Power of You(th) contest, nor is it associated with MADD Power of You(th).

Jan Withers joined MADD in 1992, after her 15-year-old daughter, Alisa Joy, was killed by an underage drinker who chose to drive after consuming numerous alcoholic beverages. Ms. Withers first volunteered by sharing her story and lobbying for tougher legislation—she wanted to make a difference by helping to stop this 100-percent preventable violent crime. Now as MADD’s National President, she speaks to lawmakers across the country about the importance of legislation requiring ignition interlocks (or “in-car breathalyzers”) for all drunk-driving offenders, a key part of MADD’s Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving. Ms. Withers continues to raise awareness for MADD’s victim support services—even leading a monthly support group—while also expanding the reach of MADD’s underage drinking prevention programs.

MADD Power of You(th) materials

Lance Armstrong: More News We'd Rather Not Have

Hello, you last heard from me when Michael Jackson died, although I’m behind the scenes at NIDA almost every day. This time, I’d like to talk about the news that famous cyclist Lance Armstrong has given up his battle against charges that he used steroids to improve his cycling skills. This is not an admission that he used steroids, but it is major news because the Tour de France will take away all seven of his titles—he will probably return his trophies, and his name will be removed from the official records. Whenever something like this happens, NIDA gets calls from reporters and from the public wanting to learn more about steroid use.

So what’s the fuss about? First of all, everyone agrees Lance Armstrong has done a lot of good in this world. In 1996, he was diagnosed with cancer that had spread to his stomach, lungs, and brain. Doctors were not sure he would live. But he fought back, and when he was better he started a foundation that has raised close to $500 million to help people with cancer.

About the steroids: Only Lance Armstrong knows the full story behind the accusations. But the news gives us all a chance to step back and look at the reasons why people so strongly oppose using steroids to improve athletic ability—especially since so many gifted athletes have admitted to using them, including the St. Louis Cardinal’s Mark McGwire, whose record-breaking 62nd home run made big baseball news in 1998.

SBB has discussed steroids several times, so I don’t need to tell you how much they can hurt your health.

So why do smart and talented athletes risk their health and happiness this way? The same question could be asked about all drugs. Although most teens stay away from steroids, many teens use other drugs like alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, and stimulants. Do they think they’ll be happier, more popular, or smarter by doing so?

Science shows that taking drugs doesn’t get you any of those things. Even professional athletes who take steroids still have to work out and train 24/7 to get any results. The best way to achieve strength, popularity, or success in school is to work hard, take care of yourself, and be the best person you can be—the real, natural YOU.

As for Lance Armstrong, if he did use steroids, he might experience more health problems as he gets older. For now, he has publicly stated that he wants to move forward with his life to devote himself to raising his five kids, fighting cancer, and attempting to be the fittest 40-year-old on the planet. Now, he says he is drug free and wants to be the best person he can be—naturally. Soon, news reporters will stop calling us about Lance Armstrong, but NIDA will keep working hard to let kids know the truth about steroids and other drugs.

Update:  Since Armstrong was stripped of his Tour de France titles, he cut ties with his Livestrong Charity.  On January 17, 2013 the world saw him openly admit to steroid use in an televised interview with Oprah Winfrey. 

Lance Armstrong

Youth-Led Efforts To Prevent Prescription Drug Abuse

Hello, again. In my last post, I wrote about the importance of teens realizing their potential as effective leaders. Today, I want to share with you how some teens are leading a movement to prevent prescription drug abuse.

In the state of Ohio, youth-led prevention is alive and well. Last year, the Ohio Youth-Led Prevention Network (OYLPN)—made up of youth-led substance abuse prevention providers and youth across the state—planned and implemented a statewide rally, bringing together hundreds of drug-free teens from all over the state. As they marched through the downtown streets, they proudly shouted, “We are the majority!” and were greeted by many of the state’s leaders when they arrived at the Statehouse.

Youth to Youth (Y2Y) International, which I am a part of, is working to prevent prescription drug abuse among central Ohio teens. With the help of a grant from the Cardinal Health Foundation, a group of teens has adapted a toolkit from the Ohio State University School of Pharmacy Web site, Generation Rx, transforming it into an exciting and interactive presentation entitled, “The pHARMING Effects.”

The presentation includes:

  • A definition of prescription drug abuse and misuse
  • A discussion of the insidious nature of addiction
  • The impact of prescription drug marketing as well as tips on how to think critically about this advertising
  • Relevant statistics and strategies for teens to initiate change in their homes, schools, and communities

This is a great example of effective youth-led prevention: Teens taking relevant and accurate information, designing a presentation, then using it to educate other young people.

Y2Y Teens Partner With NIDA and PEERx

In summer 2012, in an effort to develop a youth-led workshop, several Y2Y teens checked out NIDA’s PEERx Web site. Using NIDA’s science-based information, they created a workshop entitled, “The Epidemic Among Us.” They presented this workshop six different times at the Youth to Youth International summer conferences in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island. The workshop was very well received by over 150 other teens, who each left with a t-shirt decorated using a PEERx iron-on transfer.

Presenting the workshop not only helped educate the teens in attendance, but introduced the Web site as an excellent resource for young people who hope to continue making an impact back home.

Youth leadership in the world of prevention is vital.

How are youth in your school or community working to prevent drug abuse?

Ty Sells is the Director of Training for Youth to Youth International. He has worked in the field of youth development for over 25 years and speaks at schools all over the United States. He has developed a variety of presentations, workshops, and trainings for youth and the adults who work with them. 

Youth to Youth is a community-based drug prevention and youth leadership program focusing mainly on middle and high school students. The goal of its many projects is to harness the powerful influence of peers, encouraging young people to live free of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. 

Teens explaining prescription drug abuse.

Are Video Games Addictive?

Guest Blogger, Ethan Guinn, a winner of NIDA’s Addiction Science Award, describes how his interest in science (and video games) has brought him lots of exciting changes and opportunities.

As a high school student, my strong suit was always the sciences, so my senior year I enrolled in an advanced science class called Science Seminar. We were given the task to do our own research projects that we would compete with over the next year. I decided to do a project on video game addiction in adolescents. This idea came from observations of “addictive” behavior in myself as well as many of my friends with regard to our video game playing; I wanted to see if there were more people in our age group experiencing the same or similar problems.

I created a survey to test the prevalence of pathological video game playing in adolescents 12-18. The survey was also used to assess the negative effects that pathological video game playing may or may not cause. My results proved to be quite interesting and when I felt I had a good enough sample, I wrote a paper and created a presentation board to compete with in future science fair competitions. Judges also must have felt my results were interesting because I won every fair I competed in throughout Oklahoma.

After winning the 2008 Oklahoma State Science Fair I was sponsored to go to the 2008 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Atlanta to compete with over 2,000 projects from 53 countries. Here I was awarded a 2nd place special award given by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). I was flown to Washington, D.C., two times to present my project to many NIDA researchers as well as to the director of National Institutes of Health (NIH). After these great honors, things began to settle down and I started college. So my project was put on hold for a while.

Two years later, I was asked by Dr. Michael Rich of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Children’s Hospital, Boston, to intern at CMCH over the summer to try and publish my project. I accepted the offer, surveyed many more students, obtained confirmation of a research grant provided by NIDA, and set off for Boston.

My time spent in Boston was one of the most exciting times of my life. I was on my own in a city very far and very different from my own. But the staff at CMCH took me under their wing and taught me a tremendous amount about the details behind proper research and analysis techniques. I feel that in the 3 months I spent at CMCH, I may have learned more about the scientific process than all of my years as a science student. And to top it all off, I was able—with a lot of help from some great mentors—to finish preparing my project for journal submission, turning it into a manuscript that we hope will be worthy of publication.

For more on Ethan’s project and a video of his presentation at NIH, visit

Ethan Guinn at Lab

Talking About Hard Stuff With Your Doctor

By Jack Maypole, M.D., Director, Comprehensive Care Program, Boston Medical Center. Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Boston University School of Medicine

As a pediatrician, I find that most teens I see in my office are pretty uncomfortable talking to me about personal habits that might affect their health, like smoking or using drugs or alcohol. I get it—a doctor’s routine questions during a visit could easily seem like a big invasion of a teen’s privacy. 

But doctors aren’t trying to embarrass you. In fact, doctors and nurse practitioners work hard to support teens’ privacy.

So, let’s clear up some questions and concerns you might have about talking openly to your doctor once Mom or Dad leaves the room. Every health care provider is different, but these ideas are gathered from treating teens for almost 15 years.

What You Say in the Exam Room Stays in the Exam Room

By middle school, most young people can and should answer questions about their own health. Parents usually are asked to leave the examination room, so the doctor and teen can talk frankly by themselves. Some kids feel exposed or a little freaked out—what will happen when the door closes?  Nothing crazy.

In fact, the goal for this chat is to make a space to discuss issues privately.   

Professional rules require health care providers to keep what our patients tell us private. We can’t break that trust without your say-so, unless there is a safety concern, like if you were at risk for hurting yourself or others.

Your doctor will likely ask you a short list of questions to find out how alcohol, drugs, or tobacco affect your life (or not). Check out the CRAFFT questionnaire, one of the question lists we use.

Why We Ask These Questions

“All adolescents are asked the exact same questions,” notes my colleague Christina Nordt, a doctor of Adolescent Medicine at Boston Medical Center. “So, teens should not feel like we are making judgments about them. We begin asking questions about drugs and alcohol once patients reach about 11 or 12 years old.”

The idea is to work with you to address potential problems—are you driving around with someone who you know is drunk or high? Has using or taking drugs or alcohol gotten beyond your control? Do any of these things put you at risk for getting sick or hurt, or put you in a place you’d rather not be?

doctor talking to teen

Using What You Learn To Help Others

My experience at NIDA was an incredible one where I learned a great deal about addiction, the science behind it, and outreach to NIDA’s different audiences. For instance, I had no idea that addiction was a disease of the brain and that certain individuals’ genes may cause them to be more vulnerable to using drugs and alcohol, along with environment and other influences. It was fascinating to study about drugs more in-depth and how using them really does change the chemical structure of your brain, making it more difficult to quit.

Taking Resources Back Home

On top of what I learned about addiction science, I was fortunate to learn how NIDA’s health campaigns work and how to successfully send out public health messages to different groups. Learning about marginalized communities, such as inner-city children, and some of the difficulties they struggle with regarding drugs and alcohol spoke to me the most for a number of reasons.

I am deeply passionate about helping to solve certain problems affecting minority populations because of my own neighborhood in Chicago, where drugs and crime are all too common. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many programs available for youth to start prevention early, but now that I’m aware of the resources that NIDA offers (and in Spanish too!) it’s definitely one of my goals to begin contacting schools and youth ministries about the materials NIDA offers.

Art Meets Science

A drawing of a woman: Joanna’s self-portrait Joanna’s self-portrait

I gained so much insight during my internship with NIDA about public outreach on a national level, the importance of many groups working together to carry out a project, and event planning—just to name a few. I will be forever indebted to those at NIDA who offered me their guidance and time to make the most of my semester there. It was one of the best times of my life!

Joanna Arellano was a college intern in NIDA’s Public Information and Liaison Branch within the Office of Science Policy and Communications during spring 2012. Since leaving NIDA, she accepted an internship for Catholic Relief Services in its Global Initiative program. To learn more about internship opportunities with the National Institutes of Health, visit the NIH Training Center.

Joanna's self-portrait