NIDA scientists are always saying that teens shouldn’t use drugs, tobacco, or alcohol. But do you know why they say that? Because of scientific studies like this one by Dr. Jay Giedd, which shows that your brain won’t reach its adult potential until you’re over 20 years old. If you’re a teen—even if you’re a high school senior—your brain is still maturing. Your neurons are still developing, and connections between different parts of your brain are still forming. Drugs and alcohol may mess up that process.
Along with his colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Giedd created this scientific figure.
This picture is a cartoon depicting how the human brain continues to change between the ages of 4 and 21 years. As you move from left to right along the red arrow, the brain gets older. Above the arrow are side views of the brain (as if someone was standing in front of you, looking toward your right shoulder). Below the arrow are views of the brain from the top (like you are looking down on someone’s head).
So what’s with the rainbow colors? The colors represent the amount of “gray matter” (or active brain cells called neurons) that the researchers found in brains of different ages, using a brain imaging technique called MRI. Gray matter isn’t usually this colorful (hence the term ‘gray’ matter), but these brain pictures have been color-coded to show areas of more or less gray matter. Pink and red areas have the most gray matter, while green and blue areas have the least.
So, who do you think has more gray matter—you, or your parents? What does the figure show?
Yep—you do! It turns out that the number of neurons in your brain actually decreases as you get older. Younger brains have more gray matter (represented by the pink and red areas) than older brains (which are more green and blue). But wait—if the number of neurons in your brain is going down as you age, does that mean you’re getting dumber?
Fortunately, no. The total number of neurons in your brain isn’t as important as how your neurons connect to each other. As you get older, everything you learn and experience shapes the connections between the neurons in your brain. Over time, the connections between neurons become stronger. Your brain also develops more myelin—a white substance that wraps around neurons, insulates them, and helps them communicate more effectively. It’s like starting with a blob of clay and carving it away to make a sculpture: eventually you get a sleek, smart, mature adult brain, like the blue brains on the far right of the figure.
This figure also shows which parts of the brain mature first and which mature last. One of the very last areas to develop is the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain located just behind your forehead. This part of the brain is responsible for helping you make good decisions, and isn’t fully mature until well after you graduate from high school! Scientists think this might help explain why teens tend to take more risks than adults, including experimenting with drugs.
Does all this mean that teens can’t make smart decisions? No. Teens can and do make good choices all the time. What this figure shows is that your brain doesn’t reach its full potential until you are in your mid-twenties. Basically, teenagers have a lot of brainpower still to come online—good reason to avoid stunting your potential brain power now with drugs or alcohol.
Watch some cool time-lapse movies showing how the brain changes with age.
In April NIDA is having its “Blending” conference. No, this is not a conference about smoothies…So what does “Blending” mean to NIDA?
Let’s start back a little ways. First of all, doctors and treatment providers (the people who provide treatment to help addicted patients recover) don’t learn everything they need to know in medical school or college about taking care of patients. Scientists are constantly testing new ideas for improving treatments—but once they find treatments that work, how do they get them to the doctors and others who are actually treating patients?
Maybe in an ideal world, every doctor, social worker, or psychologist could read every good research finding in a medical or scientific journal and automatically know how to make it work for their patients. But real life isn’t that easy. A decade ago, it took more than 17 years to turn scientific research results into actual treatments used for real people! At the National Institutes of Health, scientists are working to change that, including NIDA scientists.
The NIDA “Blending” thing is part of this. We bring scientists together with the people who are actually treating patients with drug problems and “blend” their knowledge and expertise, testing treatments with actual patients and adjusting them to work better. The treatments that work the best are shared with others around the country, who are trained to use them. This “Blending” helps speed up the process of getting treatments that work to the patients who need them.
Here are a couple examples of new treatment ideas that providers will learn about at this year’s Blending conference in Albuquerque:
- New Treatments for teens and young adults who are addicted to opioids (drugs like Vicodin, Oxycontin or even heroin). There is a medication called Buprenorphine that has been successful with adults and now research is showing it may work for teens.
- Treatment Vaccines. We usually think of vaccines as something we take to avoid disease, but vaccines are being developed that can help people quit smoking and quit doing illegal drugs like cocaine (stay tuned for more on vaccines.)
So if you are reading this, you now know as much about “Blending” as many of the people who will attend the conference. Congratulations! And keep reading this blog to learn what we are learning about better ways to help people who struggle with addiction.
Why have a government agency to regulate the food we eat (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) and an agency to help protect our health (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)? These agencies are important in helping make rules, spread messages, and monitor things that affect Americans to make sure that we all stay healthy. The Government continues to add agencies that help to regulate and monitor health. In 1974, it created the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to study, fund research, and spread the word about the science behind drug abuse and addiction.
As SBB has explained in many past posts, addiction is complicated. Like other mental disorders—such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia—addiction is a chronic disease that can last a lifetime without proper treatment. And, addiction not only affects the addicted person, but also their family members and friends.
The goal of having a national agency that supports drug abuse research is to help prevent drug abuse and addiction. The more research we have to prove that addiction is a dangerous and lifelong brain disease, the more able we are to reduce the devastating effects that drug abuse has on individuals, their families and communities, and society as a whole.
NIDA's goal is to give people scientific knowledge about the dangers of drug abuse. Therefore, NIDA continues to explore how drugs work in the brain and body, and to develop and test new approaches to treatment and prevention. The first step is taken by researchers; the next step is up to you. How will you use this knowledge?
Over the years, NIDA has made its research available to many different audiences. In 2003, NIDA launched the NIDA for Teens Web site, which now hosts the Sara Bellum Blog (uh-hum), and other great tools, including Choose Your Path, which is an interactive video that asks you to make choices about prescription drug abuse, then see where those choices lead. Check out some other great resources that NIDA provides for students and young adults.