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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The adolescent brain and alcohol

Since the 1990s we have learnt a great deal about the developing brain. It was once believed that this complex organ finished developing around the age of 15 years, we now know it takes much longer and that during the dynamic changes that occur during adolescence drinking alcohol can seriously damage long and short-term growth processes.

Before we look at alcohol's effects on the developing brain - let's first discuss what is different about a teenage mind.

We all know that adolescence can be a troubled time but now we are beginning to understand why this is the case - and it's not just all about raging hormones and puberty! Certain parts of the brain are underdeveloped, particularly the prefrontal cortex (the part that deals with judgement, decision-making, planning and impulse control) and when teens make decisions they tend to use an alternative section - the amygdala (the emotional part of their brain). This results in a decrease in reasoned thinking and an increase in impulsiveness. This often leads us to think that somehow adolescent brains are 'defective' in some way but that's just not true. As a professor of neurology was quoted as saying in the Harvard Magazine - "The teenage brain is not just an adult brain with fewer miles on it. It's a paradoxical time of development. These are people with very sharp brains, but they're not quite sure what to do with them."

What often defines adolescence is increased risk taking behaviour. In recent times we have come to understand what is actually happening here and why it occurs. Young people don't take part in risky behaviour because they want to hurt themselves and it's not that they don't understand the dangers - it's just that they weigh risk versus reward differently. As one academic is quoted as saying - "they don't downgrade the risk, they give more weight to the payoff."

This contradicts basic human behaviour of survival so why do teens behave in this way? Well, it's an evolutionary feature - young people are 'wired' to engage in risky behaviour during this period of their life so that they 'leave the village and find a mate'! This behaviour is not exclusive to humans, with rodents, primates and even some birds demonstrating behaviour such as seeking out same-age peers and fighting with parents during their 'adolescence'. Trying to fight the biology of risk taking may prove pretty difficult!

So what about alcohol - where does that fit into the mix?

Studies now show that drinking alcohol at intoxicating levels during adolescence produces permanent brain changes. 'Plasticity' is the term used to describe the brain's ability to physically change its internal structure when learning new things. During peaks of plasticity the brain must make key neural connections to wire us to become fully functioning adults. Drinking alcohol during peak periods of plasticity damages this 'brain wiring'.

There are two parts of the brain that are affected by alcohol during the teen years - the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus (the learning and memory area). Research has found that adolescent drinking could cause severe changes in the formation of adult personality, as well causing up to a 10 per cent reduction in the size of the hippocampus, reducing memory and learning capacity. It is now believed that young people who drink regularly who are affected in this way may never be able to catch up in adulthood.

The message is clear - alcohol and the developing brain do not go together. If a young person is going to drink during this period they should not drink much and they should certainly not drink regularly. However, the evidence clearly indicates that they should not drink at all if at all possible.

Monday, 19 November 2012

What are 'bath salts'?

There are so many urban myths that exist to do with drugs and drug culture. It is difficult to work out how and where many of them originated, whereas others can be pinpointed exactly, as is the case with so-called 'bath salts'.

What is repeatedly mentioned in media stories to do with the new range of 'legal highs' or 'synthetics' is the story of a US man who reportedly stripped a homeless man naked and then attempted to chew his face off whilst under the influence of 'bath salts'. Witnesses described the man as a "zombie" and when the police finally arrived on the scene and intervened they shot and killed him. The attack was caught on video and, not surprisingly, the media had a field day. When the story broke there had been no toxicology conducted so no-one really knew what had caused this bizarre attack but that didn't stop the police or media from making wild claims. Nicknamed the 'Miami Zombie', Rudy Eugene became the poster boy for the new 'legal high' that was being sold as bath salts that few understood or knew very much about. There had been a number of bizarre crimes linked to the drug previously but this one was too good to miss ...

When toxicology results were finally released the only substance identified in Eugene's body was cannabis. No illicit drugs or alcohol and absolutely no bath salts! Even though the results were widely disseminated, the story of 'the man who tried to eat someone's face off' continues to be mentioned in media coverage dealing with the new range of 'synthetics' currently available - the latest offender being the Sunday Mail last weekend (an appalling piece that discusses another bizarre incident that may be related to these products, even though no toxicology has been conducted).

To the average Australian reading stories about people using bath salts as a way to get 'out of it' it all must seem pretty strange - don't you find these products sitting in your medicine cabinet? Do parents have to lock them away just in case their teenage child gets the urge to go clubbing on the weekend? A year or two ago UK parents faced a similar issue with the tabloid media reporting that 'plant food' or 'fertilizer' were being ordered online and then taken by clubbers for a drug effect. Why in heaven would anybody start using these products in this way?

Well of course they're not. 'Bath salts', 'plant food' and even 'swimming pool cleaner' (another product named by the UK media) are terms used by manufacturers to disguise a whole new range of synthetic substances and sell them online and thus hopefully avoid authorities. Prior to this, these substances were often sold as 'research chemicals'. These are a range of substances that are designed to have similar effects to illicit stimulants such as amphetamines, ecstasy and cocaine, most of which we know little, if anything, about. Plant food proved to be a drug called mephedrone and bath salts appears to be MDVP for the most part (although mephedrone has also been identified in some products, as well have some other similar compounds).

We need to be extremely careful about the warnings we issue about these drugs. We know next to nothing about them and having the media report on bizarre crimes and link them to these products without hard evidence is extremely dangerous. Young people, particularly young drug users, believe little of what authorities tell them about drugs - issuing warnings when we're not absolutely certain of the facts is problematic. You can only 'cry wolf' so many times - when we have something we really need them to listen to, there is a real danger that they will completely ignore us. I am certainly not saying that these products and the compounds they contain are not dangerous - without doubt there are surely a range of risks associated with their use - but linking them to bizarre incidents without proof is not the way to go.

Let's be honest and tell those considering using them that we know nothing about the risks involved with their use. These drugs are so new they haven't been tested on animals, let alone humans. If you decide to use them you really are being a guinea pig for the future. Isn't the truth scary enough?

Thursday, 8 November 2012

What hope do we really have?

It has been really interesting to see media coverage of the Melbourne Cup this year. Images of drunk racegoers falling to the ground with alcohol in their hands even managed to make front page news in the UK. It seems that no matter how you dress it up - getting drunk is not attractive - at last we're acknowledging that!

Then you find 'articles' like the one I was sent from Melinda Tankard-Reist yesterday that makes you realize just how far we have to go. Melinda does an amazing job highlighting a range of issues, particularly around the sexualisation of our young women. The piece she sent me came from Zoo Weekly magazine and was contained in an article called 'Truths that are Lies' challenging a number of so-called 'myths' including 'Alcohol kills brain cells'. Their response to this statement was as follows:

"Here's a good reason to go out, get slaughtered and urinate on a
policeman: even industrial quantities of booze won't destroy the grey matter. Numerous studies have shown that while getting leathered affects behaviour, positively and negatively, it's not linked with permanent cell damage, even for committed park-bench alcoholics. The cells' ability to communicate with each other is impaired during drinking (hence the falling over and the dad-dancing) but the moment you stop, those same cells begin functioning again."


Apparently, Zoo magazine is read by 28,000 young people aged 14-17 every month. The messages it sends around alcohol and getting drunk are consistently abhorrent - this piece, minimising the impact of binge drinking is no exception. Manipulating research in an attempt at schoolboy humour (get so drunk you can "urinate on a policeman") is shameful but unfortunately not unexpected from a publication like Zoo.

At a time when the community is becoming more concerned about underage drinking, and binge drinking more widely, it would be great to have the media on our side. Unfortunately we continue to have Top 40 radio show hosts asking teens to call up and tell their most embarrassing drinking story to the world and breakfast TV presenters laughing about how drunk they got at last year's Logies.

Alcohol is part of our world and I'm not suggesting that we pretend that isn't the case but why should we be constantly celebrating, and hence promoting, drinking to excess? Yes, it's a guaranteed laugh - but it's a cheap laugh ... Unfortunately it doesn't always end that way for some - I come in contact with young people who drink just a bit too much and end up sexually assaulted or a victim of senseless violence. Who laughs then?

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The 'Schoolies' Week' phenomenon

It's that time of year that many parents dread - the lead-up to 'Schoolies' Week' (or 'Leavers' Week' as it is known in WA). Last week Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr issued a warning to Schoolies travelling overseas that if they break the law consular staff can't "rescue them if they are arrested". It was a great move by the Australian Government in my opinion but I doubt very much if it will have any great effect on those young people who choose to go overseas for Schoolies' celebrations.

You only need to take a look at a story that ran on Channel Ten's 'The Project' in response to the DFA's warning to realize what we are up against. If you go to the following link the story on Schoolies travelling overseas begins at 2min.20sec. The interview with the two young women who are planning to travel to Bali is quite disturbing. When asked why they chose to go overseas they make it clear that it is to avoid the laws around alcohol as they will be underage and that the purpose of the trip is to get drunk ... I know that it is extremely difficult to stop young people from attending Schoolies' Week events but any parent who believes that it is safer for their child to travel overseas to party rather than make the pilgrimage to the Gold Coast, Byron, Rottnest or Victor Harbour truly have their heads in the sand!

Of course you have to let your child experience life and they are going to make mistakes. Some parents have said to me that their child is planning to take a 'gap year' and that they see the overseas Schoolies' Week as a 'controlled' introduction to that experience. Are they nuts? The attraction for many young people to travel overseas for Schoolies is that they are not subject to laws around underage drinking - they want to drink, and drink a lot! Days of partying hard with a large number of other young people with a similar mindset. A 'gap year' of travelling is very different - I'm sure partying hard is part of the attraction for some but realistically you can't maintain that lifestyle for long (you'd also need a lot of money!) ...

I am certainly seeing a move away from Schoolies - a growing number of Year 12 students are choosing alternate activities and parents are getting smarter, offering their teens other potentially 'safer' options in an effort to tempt them away from the usual holiday destinations. Certainly young adults should be able to celebrate their school achievements but isn't it sad that some believe alcohol has to play such a major part?

About Me

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Paul Dillon has been working in the area of drug education for the past 25 years. Through his own business, Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA) he has been contracted by many organisations to give regular updates on current drug trends. He has also worked with many school communities to ensure that they have access to good quality information and best practice drug education. His book 'Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs' was released nationally in February 2009. With a broad knowledge of a range of content areas, Paul regularly appears in the media and is regarded as a key social commentator, with interviews on television programs such as Sunrise, TODAY and The Project.