NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse
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Help Prevent Teen Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription drug abuse among teens is a significant problem affecting communities nationwide. Results from NIDA’s 2012 Monitoring the Future survey of teen drug use showed a number of worrying issues:

  • Nonmedical use of prescription drugs remains high, while teens’ perception of the risk of such abuse is low.
  • 14.8% of high school seniors used a prescription drug for nonmedical reasons or one that was not prescribed for them in the past year.
  • After alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana, prescription and over-the-counter medications account for most of the top drugs abused by 12th graders in the past year, with Adderall and Vicodin being the most commonly abused prescription drugs.

Prescription Drugs and the Brain

This class of drugs targets the central nervous system and includes medications used to treat pain (e.g., Vicodin, OxyContin), ADHD (e.g., Adderall), and anxiety and sleep disorders (e.g., Xanax, Valium). Taken as intended, prescription drugs safely treat specific mental or physical symptoms.

However, when taken in unmanaged doses or by someone without a prescription, these medications may affect the brain in ways similar to illegal drugs. Ritalin, for example, increases alertness, attention, and energy in a way similar to cocaine—by boosting the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine released in the brain. Similarly, prescription opioid pain relievers such as OxyContin attach to the same cell receptors targeted by illegal opioids like heroin. When abused, these drugs can lead to a large increase in the amount of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway. Repeatedly seeking to experience that pleasurable feeling can lead to addiction. Abuse of opioids can also affect areas of the brain that control breathing, causing it to slow down significantly and potentially causing death (a fatal overdose).   When abused, opioids can also cause drowsiness and constipation.

The Problem Among Teens

Teens may abuse prescription painkillers like Vicodin or OxyContin for a number of reasons, such as to get “high” or to counter anxiety, pain, or sleep problems. Fueled by academic pressure, teens are also abusing stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin—a.k.a. “study drugs”—with the intent to improve their concentration, energy, and focus. A dangerous misconception is that these drugs are safer to abuse than illegal drugs because they are prescribed by doctors. Another misconception is that they improve cognitive performance in people who don’t actually have an attention disorder.

Help Teens Make Smart Decisions

In response to this serious public health issue, NIDA developed PEERx, an online educational campaign to discourage abuse of prescription drugs among teens. A component of the NIDA for Teens program, PEERx provides science-based resources—in an engaging format—for teens and teen leaders, counselors, and educators to encourage discussions about this important issue.

PEERx offers a variety of free resources, including the Choose Your Path interactive videos that allow teens to assume the role of the main character and make decisions about whether to abuse prescription drugs. After each scene, the viewer selects what the main character will do next and sees the results of each decision. Another resource, the PEERx Activity Guide, can be used to plan events in schools and communities. The partner toolkit and fact sheets about prescription drugs are other helpful resources to supplement your efforts.

Through the PEERx initiative, NIDA is reaching out to help stop prescription drug abuse among teens. “Prescription drug abuse is not new, but it does deserve continued vigilance,” says NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D. “It is imperative that as a Nation we make ourselves aware of the consequences associated with the abuse of these medications.”

References

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA Research Report: Prescription Drugs: Abuse and Addiction (http://www.drugabuse.gov/ResearchReports/Prescription/Prescription.html). NIH Publication No. 11-4881. Bethesda, MD: NIDA, NIH, DHHS. Published July 2001. Revised October 2011. Retrieved December 2012.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Monitoring the Future. Data Tables and Figures (http://monitoringthefuture.org/data/12data/pr12t2.pdf and http://monitoringthefuture.org/data/12data/pr12t6.pdf). Bethesda, MD: NIDA, NIH, DHHS. December 2012. Retrieved December 2012.