Daily Archives: 23/08/2014

Chunking and addiction formation in adolescents

Amy, a US public health nurse and I were discussing after the PHE and alcohol (2) post the issue of catching addiction in adolescents before it became entrenched.  I said in the comments  A great deal of research has been done between smoking cannabis at a young age and the pruning of the neural network that happens at that time in adolescents and how it pretty much locks in the addiction but the same has not been done with drinking. I’d be interested in that as I think many of us started drinking at this young age and I wonder if the same neural network pruning also happens around booze.

Well low and behold if later that day I didn’t read an article discussing exactly that!! I love it when that happens 🙂   The piece by Aeon Magazine was shared on FB and is a debate about the 12 step approach which I am going to side-step and focus on these bits that I found interesting:

Her multiple relapses, according to recent science, are no ethical or moral failing – no failure of will. Instead, they are the brain reigniting the neurological and chemical pathways of addiction. Ruben Baler, a health scientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the US, told me that, once the circuitry of habituation is in place, it cannot be destroyed or fully overwritten. ‘The brain will never go back to a pristine, naïve, drug-free state,’ Baler said. It would be like reversing time itself.

This permanence is the result of a process that researchers call ‘chunking’: a person using drugs or alcohol experiences a burst of the activating neurotransmitter, dopamine, encoding memories and stimuli associated with that high in the brain. As substance use turns chronic, that same networks in the brain are increasingly engaged, and eventually the habit becomes automatic. Baler likens it to riding a bicycle – once the brain knows what to do with the pedals, brakes and handlebars, the action is inevitable. When any part of this chain, or chunking, is triggered – maybe it’s a visit from an addict friend, or the sight of a McDonald’s where you once got high in the bathroom – it can lead to a full-blown relapse. That’s why lifelong abstinence can be such an impossible goal for even the most committed of recovering addicts.

Research describes a powerful chemical inertia that can begin early in life. In 96.5 per cent of cases, addiction risk is tied to age; using a substance before the age of 21 is highly predictive of dependence because of the brain’s vulnerability during development. And childhood trauma drives substance use in adolescence. A study of 8,400 adults, published in 2006 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that enduring one of several adverse childhood experiences led to a two- to three-fold increase in the likelihood of drinking by age 14.

Bingo! – this was exactly what we were discussing.  So if you started drinking around the age of 14/15 when your brain is undergoing an extensive growth phase with increased plasticity then it will literally hard wire in the dependence.  And this is what is so worrying as so many young are drinking before 18 and the industry encourages it with their brightly coloured spirit based alco-pops.  They are creating dependence at adolescence.  This is going to sound like a retrograde step but I would encourage the increasing of the age that you can drink in this country to be like the US where it is 21.  I appreciate there are ways round this with false ID’s, I did it too, but it would go some way to protecting the brain during this highly developing stage.  God the more I read and learn the more afraid I become for my children and the greater the urgency feels to do something about this before they reach adolescence ……

29 days to go

Edited to add 20th May 2016:

Hayle will be home to the UK’s first specialist drug and alcohol rehab unit for children

Bosence Farm Community in Hayle, Cornwall will treat youngsters for alcohol, drug and legal high abuse and is scheduled to open in November 2016