By M. Gideon Hoyle
Working memory is a critical form of short-term memory that all human beings rely on to stay oriented to their surroundings. It forms part of a larger set of skills known collectively as executive control or executive function.
In a study published in August 2014 in the journal Development and Psychopathology, a team of American researchers looked at the role that working memory plays in determining the typical drug use patterns of young teenagers. These researchers concluded that teens with strong working memories have lower risks for dangerous patterns of drug use than teens with relatively weak working memories.
Teen Drug Use
Every year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse uses a University of Michigan-administered project called Monitoring the Future to track current and long-term trends in teen drug use.
This project collects its data from a nationally representative group of 8th graders, 10th graders and 12th graders. Figures from the 2013 version of Monitoring the Future indicate that roughly one-quarter (25.5 percent) of all U.S. 12th graders use some form of illicit/illegal drug at least once in the average month. Roughly one-fifth (19.4 percent) of all 10th graders use an illicit/illegal drug in the average month, as do 8.5 percent of all 8th graders.
The percentages for all three grades rise slightly when the makeshift drugs called inhalants are factored into the mix. By far, the most popular drug among American teenagers is marijuana/cannabis. Other relatively frequently used drugs include amphetamines (mainly in the form of ADHD medications), sedatives, tranquilizers and MDMA (Molly, Ecstasy). Drug use in the 8th, 10th and 12th grades increased slightly from 2012 to 2013.
Working memory gives human beings the ability to simultaneously take in new information and use that information immediately in order to stay focused on their current surroundings. One form of this skill, called verbal working memory, centers on the ability to take in and use incoming sound-based information.
A second form of working memory, called visual-spatial working memory, centers on the ability to make and use mental images of incoming information. Children gradually develop their working memory as they grow older and transition from early childhood to adolescence. Kids who lack age-appropriate working memory skills can encounter significant difficulty in the classroom or in any other environment that requires the combined ability to take in new information and maintain attention.
Well-developed working memory is considered critical for the development of executive function, which includes core skills such as logical thinking, impulse control, emotional control, decision-making and planning.
Impact On Drug Use Patterns
In the study published in Development and Psychopathology, researchers from the University of Oregon, the University of Pennsylvania and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia used data from a group of 382 teens and preteens to explore the impact that working memory has on adolescents’ patterns of drug use. The majority of these children lived in environments where drug use was fairly common. At each of four annual evaluations, all of the study participants submitted information on the types and amounts of drugs they had consumed in the previous month. The researchers used annual testing to measure each participant’s working memory skills, as well as each participant’s ability to resist acting in impulsive ways.
Adolescents With Well-Developed Working Memories vs. Weak Working Memories
At the end of the four-year project, the researchers concluded that, when they used drugs, the adolescent participants with well-developed working memories typically fell into a pattern of experimental intake that did not progress to hazardous levels. Conversely, the researchers also concluded that when the teens with relatively weak working memories used drugs, they had a much higher chance of falling into a progressive pattern of intake that put them in danger of eventually encountering serious drug-related problems.
The study’s authors believe that working memory and the ability to control impulsive behavior are critical to determining the typical usage patterns in teens who get involved with drugs. When working memory is strong and impulsive behavior remains well controlled, the risks for drug-related problems remain fairly low. On the other hand, when working memory is weak and impulsive behavior has a stronger influence, the risks for drug-related problems rise substantially. The authors believe that interventions designed to increase the working memory skills of teenagers and younger children could have a significant preventative benefit in blocking the transition from experimental drug use to habitual drug use.
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