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Impulsive teenagers: there's a reason for that behaviour

Brain wiring could be a cause for early drug use by teenagers.

Image: Anthony Devlin/PA Archive/Press Association Images

A NEW STUDY has shown that the impulsive behaviour often noticed in teenagers could reflect underlying neurodevelopmental processes.

According to the Irish-based research, experimenting with alcohol, cigarettes and drugs or taking other spur-of-the-moment risks could be explained by the way the brain is wired.

In a paper published in the Nature Neuroscience journal, Drs Robert Whelan and Hugh Garavan of the University of Vermont described the largest imaging study of the human brain ever conducted.

Involving up to 1,900 14-year-olds in Ireland, England, France and Germany, the study highlighted the differences in neural networks which provide strong evidence that some teenagers are at higher risk for experimentation with illegal substances.

According to Pscyhcentral.com, the EU-funded study could solve an age-old child-or-egg question: whether certain brain patterns come before drug use or are caused by it.

The key finding of the study is that inadequate functioning of one specific network in the brain is associated with an increased “likelihood of initiating drug use in early adolescence”.

Further to that, researchers discovered inferior activity in another frontal area was also related to the use of illegal substances and the speed of the inhibition process.

When asked to first smoke or drink, the 14-year-old with a less functional impulse-regulating network will be more likely to say, “yeah, gimme, gimme, gimme!” said Garavan, “and this other kid is saying, ‘no, I’m not going to do that.’”

Looking at the possible connection between drug use and ADHD, researchers found that although they are both associated with impulsivity, the problems are regulated by different networks in the brain. This gives more credence to the belief that those suffering from attention-deficit disorders are not necessarily more likely to take drugs.

Unfortunately, Whelan told the Burlington Free Press that the team is still “a long way off” doing anything practical with the results so parents of teenagers won’t benefit from the new understandings of the brain just yet.

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