By Christi van Eyken
Strong executive attention skills can help adolescents to avoid substance abuse problems, according to new research from the University of Oregon. The study, which also included collaboration from the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, was published in the quarterly journal Development and Psychopathology.
Attention Skills’ Affect On Teen Substance Abuse
Executive attention is a working memory component that helps the brain to stay focused on tasks despite distractions and remain goal-oriented. The researchers found that teens with strong working memory skills, and strong executive attention skills in particular, were more likely to avoid chronic substance use problems following early experimentation with tobacco, marijuana or alcohol.
Previous Research Suggests Early Experimentation Increases Risk Of Abuse
Led by Atika Khurana, PhD, of the Oregon Department of Psychology and Human Services, the researchers gathered substance use and memory data from a group of young people enrolled in a long-term study. 382 adolescents between the ages of 11 and 13 completed a survey regarding their alcohol, tobacco or marijuana use in the preceding 30 days. These participants also completed a series of four working memory tests to test their attention to task, impulsivity and spatial memory.
Previous research has suggested that early drug experimentation increases the likelihood of later substance abuse problems. However, these studies were mostly conducted with adult subjects who are asked to recall the age at which they first began experimenting with drugs. By conducting their surveys and working memory tests with adolescents, the University of Oregon team was able to explore whether impulsivity and attention also influenced who went on to develop substance use disorders.
Strong Attention Skills May Reduce Risk Of Early Experimentation
Dr. Khurana and her team found that strong working memory abilities were able to help adolescents curtail their impulsive tendencies. Despite early drug experimentation, the adolescents in the study with strong executive attention skills were much more likely to avoid progressive substance use. The participants in the study were assessed for impulsive drug use behaviors at the time and during a follow-up assessment in late adolescence.
The results of this study still suggest that early experimentation with tobacco, alcohol or marijuana is a risk factor for substance use disorders later on. However, this research suggests that strong executive attention abilities can compensate for the risks of early substance experimentation. However, those who do not develop strong working memory skills involving executive attention in adolescence appear to be at much greater risk for substance use disorders if they begin drug and alcohol experimentation at a relatively young age.
Prevention And Intervention Efforts Could Emphasize Attention Skills
These results emphasize the importance of executive attention in adolescent decision-making regarding substance use and suggest a different approach to substance intervention for young teenagers. Early intervention could involve tools and training designed to improve working memory function and help adolescents to manage their own impulsive tendencies.
Emphasizing such skills could also be an effective method of prevention, and help children and adolescents in others areas of life as well. Poor executive functioning can cause impulse-control problems in children as young as three years old, and lead to both academic and disciplinary problems throughout grade school. These problems stem from difficulty storing, organizing and evaluating information and using this information to weigh the attractions of various opportunities against the possible long-term consequences of those opportunities.
This strategy for prevention may be all the more promising because of the high rate of experimentation among teenagers. A 2012 survey found that 78 percent of teens between the ages of 13 and 18 had tried alcohol and 42.5 percent had tried illicit drugs. When experimentation is so likely despite prevention efforts, it becomes more critical to help those teens avoid progressive substance use.
This research was supported by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.