Addiction Linked to Weak Working Memory


Addiction and poor impulse control. Well, it is fair to say that the two go hand in hand. Addicts and alcoholics can easily be typified by making rash decisions, that are rarely in one’s best interest. A major component of addiction recovery is reining in such destructive impulses that, in recovery, can surely lead to relapse. It isn't an easy task. True addiction develops over the course of years. During which time, people’s brains become wired to act and react to various things in certain ways. Breaking such patterns is hard work, requiring continued maintenance.

Those living in active addiction have a “go to” response for most things that come up. If they are stressed, they use. If they are happy, they use. Ad infinitum. But in most cases, the continued reliance on a substance for coping with all things Life, comes down to how your brain functions with regard to memory. Addicts and alcoholics often have short attention spans, and minds that easily forget where drugs take them. Sure, one may find relief in using a substance for a time. But such relief is always outweighed by the bad that comes with the use of a substance. Despite that fact, people continue to use regardless.

Naturally, we are all wired a little bit differently, sometimes a lot differently. Beginning at a young age, individuals process things in a subjective manner. Some young people excel at staying focused and on-task, while others struggle to keep their heading. There is compelling research indicating that those who struggle with impulse control and working memory, the capacity to focus on a task without being easily distracted, are at greater risk of substance use disorder later in life, according to a study conducted by researchers at three institutions. The findings of which, were published in the journal Addiction.

Risk of Addiction

More times than not, teenage substance use is a risk factor for a substance use disorder in adulthood. Early drug and alcohol initiation, while the brain is still developing, can wreak havoc on the course of one’s life. However, that is not always the case. The majority of teens who experiment with alcohol, tobacco and marijuana in high school, don’t progress to addiction later in life. For a significant minority, the future holds something altogether different.

It goes without saying there isn’t a test that will identify who will be touched by addiction. Sure, there are several factors that often play a part in the development of the disease (i.e. family history and upbringing), but they do not necessarily mean that the child will follow the same road as an addicted parent. While doctors cannot look at any one thing and say emphatically, ‘this teen will have problems later in life,’ identifying which adolescents have certain risk factors can help guide prevention methods that may mitigate the likelihood of addiction developing in the future.

Researchers looked 387 study participants (ages 18-20) who were recruited as 10- to 12-year-olds in 2004 for a long-term study, a University of Oregon news release reports. Baselines for the participants working memory and impulsive tendencies were defined at the beginning of the study. Teens with weak working memories and poor impulse control were at a greater risk of experimenting with substances at a young age, and having a substance use disorder later in life.

We found that there is some effect that was carried through the early progression in drug use. It is a risk factor," said Khurana, who also is a research scientist in the UO's Prevention Science Institute. "But we also found that the underlying weakness in working memory and impulse control continues to pose a risk for later substance-use disorders."

Predicting Addiction Later In Life

In middle schools and high schools across the country, substance use prevention efforts employ a total abstinence methodology. The idea being that if teens don’t ever use drugs and alcohol, they will be less likely to have a problem later in life. While that may be true in some cases, it is an idea that isn’t based in reality for the simple fact that young people will often do that which they are told not to do. As was mentioned earlier, most of the young people who experiment will not have a problem later in life. With that in mind, it would seem that prevention and intervention methods that work to improve certain behavioral deficits, could help many young people in the future.

Drug prevention strategy in the schools typically focuses on middle school when early drug use tends to take place and assumes that any drug use at all is a problem,” said Co-author Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. “This study suggests that prevention needs to be more nuanced. The risk depends on whether drug use is likely to progress.”

If impulse control and one’s ability to stay focused is strengthened, teenagers and young adults would benefit greatly with regard to the relationship they develop with mind-altering substances.

Working with Young Adult Males

Through intensive, one-on-one addiction psychotherapy, under the care of licensed Master Level Therapists, PACE Recovery Center clients learn about and become aware of their experiences with addiction and behavioral health issues. They begin to identify personal core beliefs associated with negative sense of self, which exacerbates self defeating behaviors such as depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol use. Clients begin to challenge these self-destructive beliefs and ultimately restructure them into a healthier and more adaptive way of living free from mood altering substances. Each client's treatment plan is closely monitored, modified when necessary and evaluated by their therapist and the clinical treatment team.

The War On Drugs: A Closer Look

Some of our older readers can probably remember when President Richard Nixon called drug abuse America’s public enemy number one. You can likely remember when the 37th President of the United States declared a “war on drugs.” Setting aside any ulterior motives or hidden agendas, Nixon’s declaration of war seemed to make sense. Drugs are both dangerous and deadly. They have the power to ruin the lives of individuals and their families. Illegal drug manufacturing, distribution and use place a heavy economic toll on society.

The war on drugs was basically a three-pronged effort to target illegal drug sales, help addicts recover from what we know now to be a mental health disorder and educate young people about the dangers of substance use and abuse. Unfortunately, now forty years later, we know that most of the Federal government’s energy was directed towards incarcerating drug offenders. Whether they be dealers or addicts. The idea, presumably, arrest those who supply drugs and those who demand them. And voilà! The problem goes away. Right?

President Nixon may have started the war, but the battle to rid the country of both drugs and addiction would continue under every Commander-in-Chief to follow. Aggressively under both Presidents Reagan and Clinton. It is important for all of us to remember that the ill-fated war on drugs in America was believed in by lawmakers on both sides of the Congressional and Presidential aisle. It was about party affiliation. Going after drug traffickers in this country and abroad, and arresting individuals for breaking laws prohibiting the use of certain narcotics, seemed like good policy. Not just in America.

Decades later, and a closer look at such a policy and the results that it achieved versus the costs (not just monetarily), one will see that what can only be described as a dismal failure presents itself. As is evident by the fact that we host the largest prison population and have the biggest drug problem on the planet—despite everyone’s best intentions. Over half of inmates in the U.S. are in jail or prison for nonviolent drug offenses.

While the last decade could be called a quasi-cease fire in the war in drugs (i.e. changes in mandatory minimum sentencing, drug courts, state-level marijuana legalization and presidential pardons for nonviolent offenders), there is still a lot more to be done with regard to putting an end to draconian drug sentencing laws. Also, with breaking the stigma of addiction, so that people who need help can get it.

A War on Drugs, Abroad…

You may have seen news reports over the last year, covering President Duterte of the Philippines. A leader who essentially declared that the punishment for both drug dealers and addicts is death. One not even be given the luxury of a trial, evidenced by suspects being gunned down on the streets. It is fair to say that the approach in the Philippines is far more severe than any war on drugs to come before. Even compared to a country with a history of being the frontline of the global war on drugs, Colombia.

In the 1980’s and early-90’s, with the help of billions of American dollars and the CIA, the Colombian government fought tooth and nail to bring down narcotraficantes (drug traffickers). With the most notable target being Pablo Escobar, who was finally brought down under Colombian President Cesar Gaviria in 1993. While that nation won a few battles, Gaviria points out that it came at great costs in New York Times op-ed published last week. With first-hand experience in such matters and a founding member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the former Colombian leader used the op-ed as a forum to reach out to President Duterte. Warning him about what is at stake, if his hardline approach continues.

Winning the fight against drugs requires addressing not just crime, but also public health, human rights and economic development. No matter what Mr. Duterte believes, there will always be drugs and drug users in the Philippines. But it is important to put the problem in perspective: The Philippines already has a low number of regular drug users. The application of severe penalties and extrajudicial violence against drug consumers makes it almost impossible for people with drug addiction problems to find treatment. Instead, they resort to dangerous habits and the criminal economy. Indeed, the criminalization of drug users runs counter to all available scientific evidence of what works.” Gaviria adds, “Taking a hard line against criminals is always popular for politicians. I was also seduced into taking a tough stance on drugs during my time as president. The polls suggest that Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs is equally popular. But he will find that it is unwinnable. I also discovered that the human costs were enormous. We could not win the war on drugs through killing petty criminals and addicts. We started making positive impacts only when we changed tack, designating drugs as a social problem and not a military one.”

Not Just A History Lesson

Hopefully, Gaviria sage wisdom will not fall on deaf ears, and the lives of addicts overseas may be spared. Here at home, where we do not see addicts being meted out extrajudicial punishments, we have a seen a lot of progress in recent years with regard to drugs and how those who use them are treated. In a number of cities across the country, addicts can surrender their drugs to police. Instead of being given handcuffs in return, those living in addiction are shown compassion and referred to treatment centers. A trend that we all hope will continue.

While President Gaviria’s message was meant for the President of the Philippines, hopefully it will be heeded in some degree here in America. As was emphasized earlier, there is still a lot more that can be done, that can make a real impact for the better. Last week, a Presidential Executive Order on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking was signed. Some working in the field of addiction fear that the language in the new EO might echo the draconian approaches of the past in the American war on addiction. In the NYT op-ed (unrelated to the new EO) mentioned earlier, Gaviria closed with:

A successful president makes decisions that strengthen the public good. This means investing in solutions that meet the basic standards of basic rights and minimize unnecessary pain and suffering. The fight against drugs is no exception. Strategies that target violent criminals and undermine money laundering are critical. So, too, are measures that decriminalize drug users, support alternative sentencing for low-level nonviolent offenders and provide a range of treatment options for drug abusers. This is a test that many of my Colombian compatriots have failed...”

PACE Recovery Mission

At PACE Recovery Center, our mission is to provide our clients with a safe and supportive environment to help them overcome the challenges they have experienced due to alcohol and drug abuse. We believe that incorporating sound clinical interventions and a lifestyle that encourages health and wellness, in a shame free setting that encourages accountability and responsibility, will help foster long term recovery.

We will continue our efforts to break the stigma of addiction.

Heroin Overdoses Among Young Adults


Researchers from the University of Michigan conduct the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey every year. The answers that high school students give, provide experts a window into the severity of teen substance use and abuse. The findings can help direct preventive measures in the coming years. The 2016 MTF presented some promising findings, especially regarding prescription opioid use among young people. In fact, past year prescription opioid use among 12th graders dropped 45 percent, compared to five years ago.

The findings are a good sign that we may see reductions in opioid use among 20 something-year-olds in the coming years, an age group that as of late has been using both heroin prescription opioids at alarming rates. The dangers of using opioids of any kind need to be reinforced in young people early on and repeatedly. If preventative measures fall short, more and more young people will succumb to hooks and snares of opioid narcotics. Unfortunately, identifying the groups of people at greatest risk of opioid use initiation isn’t an easy task, partly due to stereotyping.

Heroin Outside City Limits

Heroin, like “crack cocaine,” is often considered to be a drug that primarily wreaks havoc in the inner city. A drug that is used by downtrodden and impoverished Americans. While there is a lot opioid abuse in urban areas, the situation has changed. In recent years, the opioid addiction epidemic has predominantly affected suburban and rural parts of the country. Additionally, many of the young people abusing heroin today, come from white middle class or affluent families. These are young people who have access to financial resources that make it easier to maintain an addiction.

But, even with more resources than the average person of the same age, what often starts as a prescription opioid problem can quickly morph into a heroin problem. The reasons are simple. The price of drugs like OxyContin has only gone in one direction—up! Heroin on the other hand is cheaper, and in many cases, stronger than prescription opioids. Easier to acquire, as well.

One of the unintended consequences of this prescription opioid epidemic has been the increase in heroin addiction and overdoses, in part due to the transition from prescription opioids to less expensive heroin street drugs,” California state health officials report. “Heroin deaths have continued to increase steadily by 67 percent since 2006 and account for a growing share of the total opioid-related deaths.”

In the first quarter of 2016, 412 adults age 20 to 29 went to emergency departments in California due to heroin, according to Los Angeles Daily News. Los Angeles and Orange counties have seen a continued increase in ER cases involving heroin among people in their twenties.

Spotting the Signs

If you have a child in their twenties, frequently they are still living at home, as many Millennials do. But if you have never used an opioid, there is a good chance you would not be able to spot the signs of use. And it isn’t like your child is just going to use right in front of you. So how can you identify signs of a problem? In some cases, you may see track marks from IV heroin use. However, many young heroin addicts do not use needles, opting to smoke or snort the drug. In which case, track marks will not be a signpost you can rely on.

Common signs of opioid use, include:

  • Tiny Pupils
  • Nodding Off
  • Slurred Speech
  • Incessant Itching
  • Complaints of Constipation
  • Diminished Appetite

There are other signs, but those listed are synonymous with opioid use. If you see any of those appearances or behaviors, there is a good chance there is a problem. Such discoveries should prompt further investigation. You can always confront your child about the signs you are seeing, but getting an honest answer is easier said than done. Addiction will lead people to do or say just about anything to continue fueling the fire.

You can also ask if they would be willing to take a drug test. If they refuse, that’s a pretty good sign that you are on the right track. The best results for getting your child into treatment often come by way of interventionists. They are skilled professionals who can help walk you through the process of saving your child’s life.

PACE Recovery Center Can Help

If you know, or suspect that your young adult son is using heroin or prescription opioids, please contact us as soon as possible. With so many young people succumbing to heroin addiction, time is of the essence.

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