AMPHETAMINES AND THE ADOLESCENT BRAIN
- August 19, 2018
Many children and teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can benefit from taking prescription amphetamines, such as Adderall and Ritalin. These medications are safe enough when used properly and closely supervised by parents and physicians, but they are also easy to abuse. In particular, adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17, a period when the brain has not finished developing and maturing, are likely to take the medication even when it is not prescribed to them, because they believe that it will help them stay awake or concentrate and do better in school. Unfortunately, taking amphetamines in adolescence can have long-lasting effects on brain development.
A study conducted at the University of Illinois and published in the journal Neuroscience found that amphetamine can have long-term effects on the adolescent brain. The researchers used rats to study the effects that long-term amphetamine use has on the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain located behind the forehead that is among the last to fully develop during adolescence. It’s the area responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, logic, reasoning, memory and moderating social behavior.
Brain cells that utilize the neurotransmitter dopamine are key factors in the development of the prefrontal cortex. It’s also in the prefrontal cortex that dopamine influences inhibitory tone, meaning that your cells are told to stop reacting to a stimulus. One particular dopamine receptor, called the D1 receptor, is altered following amphetamine exposure. These receptors regulate neuronal growth and development and mediate some behavioral responses. After exposure to amphetamine, they either no longer respond to dopamine or there are not as many of the receptors after exposure as there were previously. These changes lasted for 14 weeks in the rats – which is equivalent to a change in humans that lasts from adolescence until sometime in the 30s – showing that there are changes in adolescent brains that can last well beyond the last drug use.
Brain cells from rats exposed to amphetamine abuse in adolescence showed both abnormal responses to electrical stimulation and insensitivity to dopamine. Interestingly, these same effects weren’t seen in young adults, whose brains are more fully formed. Because brain cells communicate using both electrical and chemical signals, the disruptions in brain function are potentially doubled.
The use of rats in the study was chosen because they have many of the same characteristics as adolescent humans do. They tend to be more impulsive than adult rats, they tend to make more risky decisions, and they engage in addiction-like behaviors. They also show increased drug use in response to stress, and those who use drugs in adolescence are more likely to relapse than those who start using drugs in adulthood.
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