Event Examines Issues of Addiction in Adolescents

Adolescent Drug Use Impacts Brain Function and Activity; Younger Users Are More Likely to Become Addicted


Published: November 20, 2008

On Nov. 6, Patrick Bordeaux, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’96, presented “Understanding of Addiction in Adolescents” to a group of over 50 students, informing them about the psychiatric effects of adolescent addiction.

Bordeaux opened the event by saying, “Twenty million people in the U.S. suffer some form of addiction, whether it is alcohol or drugs, but most won’t admit it. When you start using drugs and…alcohol, it’s because you want to avoid something,” he said, calling drug use “a shortcut.”

He continued, “For a while, drugs will make you feel like you are moving forward [in life], but in reality, you are not going anywhere.” The reason people do drugs is to escape reality, Bordeaux said, since drugs can users feel less stressed.

Bordeaux, a scientist in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at Laval University in Quebec, Canada, is also a member of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry and the American Society of Addiction medicine.

Bordeaux explained the psychiatric effects of addiction in adolescents, and he also acknowledged the social pressures adolescents face. For instance, he said, in the movie “Goodfellas,” the main character, Henry Hill, was caught dealing drugs as a teenager. After being bailed out by the mafia boss, the group welcomed Hill with applause.  This was a moment when a young boy felt accepted in society, which, according to Bordeaux, is “the one thing that can release as much dopamine as drugs or alcohol [does] in the brain of an adolescent.”

Tatiana Popovitchenko, FCLC ’12, is a natural science major and a member of the science club. She said that she learned a lot about the way addiction affects adolescents.

“It is interesting to see how adolescents get more approval in using drugs… Praise is a great feeling [for adolescents],” she said.

“The brain of a person who has been using [drugs] for five, 10, 20 years is not the same as [the brain of] someone who has never used,” Bordeaux said. Years of using drugs cause irreversible damage to the brain, he said. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, plays a large role in addiction, affecting brain processes that control movement, emotional response and ability to experience pleasure and pain. When he showed an image of a brain influenced by cocaine, the dopamine receptors of the brain gradually decreased by the minute, eventually diminishing completely after about 30 minutes. The feeling of being “high” is a result of the loss of these receptors.

“The shorter [the length of the high], the faster it goes to the brain, and the more addicted you are going to be,” Bordeaux said.  He showed brain images which illustrated the fact that, even 100 days after cocaine use, the brain is not fully restored to normal functionality.

“You are no longer high…but the level of activity of your brain is lowered,” Bordeaux said.

“The younger you start [using drugs], the harder it is to stop,” he said. Furthermore, Bordeaux explained that the likelihood of addiction when a person starts using drugs or alcohol after 25 is very low.  This is because the plasticity of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, does not fully develop and mature until about 25 years, he explained. According to brainexplorer.org, this area of the brain is involved in planning complex cognitive behaviors and in the expression of personality and appropriate social behavior.  The prefrontal cortex is the very last part of the brain to mature, allowing species to adapt to their environment, Bordeaux said.

Bordeaux described the results of an experiment on people who used cocaine or crack.

“They were shown pictures that reminded them of the time they were using,” while they were placed under an MRI.  The pictures were not of cocaine or crack itself but instead were of other triggers that reminded the them of their former drug use. Bordeaux used the example of a fruit stand in the case of one individual, because he or she always bought drugs next to a fruit stand. It only takes a split second for this reminder to activate the addictive parts of the users’ brains.

“This is why addiction is a chronic disease,” Bordeaux said.  No matter how long one has been sober, the brain can easily fall back into old habits, he said.

“My friend who smokes had a difficult time breaking the habit,” said Divya Lakhati, FCLC ’12.

She said, “Addiction in adolescents is difficult to fight, especially since [my friend’s] parents smoked as well.”

Alena Ispahani, FCLC ’09, said that she felt well-informed by the presentation and that “addiction is something we hear about, but do not understand when it comes to the physiological response.”