Ruben Baler, Ph.D., Health Science Administrator, Office of Science Policy and Communications, NIDA. Photo by Robin Stevens Payes
Ruben Baler, Ph.D., is not your typical neuroscientist. Baler has studied in his native country Argentina, the U.S., and Israel. He is fluent in three languages. His work at NIDA enables him to publish scientific papers and collaborate on presentations and speeches with NIDA’s Director, Nora D. Volkow, M.D.
His true passion is teaching young people about the brain. He talks to college students at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and regularly interacts with high school students in and around the Washington, DC, area.
Dr. Baler talks in this podcast about the teen brain—how it develops fast, just like teens themselves. And how, sometimes, that growth keeps young people from using their best judgment when it comes to risky behaviors, such as experimenting with drugs and alcohol, driving too fast, or jumping headlong into relationships.
Dr. Baler: Hello, my name is Ruben Baler. I am [a scientist] with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA.
It’s probably helpful to think of the brain as a computer, which in essence, it is. It’s a very complex computer. It’s made up of circuits that affect or mediate all sorts of different functions in the brain. You can think of the learning circuit, the memory circuit, the higher thinking (cognitive function) circuit. There are all sorts of networks in the brain that interact with each other and with the environment. They are the substrates (or key brain areas) where drugs of abuse have their effects.
The main substrate in the brain that is impacted by drugs of abuse is called the "circuit of reward." It is the area deep inside the brain that influences feelings of reward, feelings of pleasure. Drugs of abuse hijack the normal pathways of reward and lead the brain to think that the drug-induced experience is the highest possible goal from now on.
SBB: What makes the teenage brain so special?
Dr. Baler: One of the main reasons is that different parts of the brain develop at different rates. There are two main parts: one area, called the amygdala, governs our instincts, our gut feelings. That area develops early on and is already mature in a teenager.
Then there is another area called the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that takes much longer to develop, to fully mature. The teen brain is different because the ability to make good decisions really depends on the balance between these two structures: the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, part of the limbic system that develops so early on.
So we can say that teenagers make decisions mostly based on this instinctual part of the brain, these gut feelings, because the prefrontal cortex has not yet [developed] the ability to fully exert control and keep tabs on the already-mature limbic system.
SBB: Do you think that by studying the brain and knowing how it’s linked to addiction and other high-risk behaviors, teens can learn to “tame” their brains?
Dr. Baler: Well, one school of thought says that by providing fact-based information to teenagers—like the fact that their brains are still developing and they may make decisions differently than adults—may urge them to stop and think, and make better decisions as a result.
There are big, big questions in neuroscience. For example: where is consciousness? Where does consciousness lie? We’d like to understand how this computer (the brain) leads to things like music, creativity, poetry—very complex products of this very complex machine.
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