A study from the University of Oregon discovered that young adults who have a strong working memory are more able to avoid drug experimentation and the problematic substance abuse that comes with it.
The researchers noted the most important part of the working memory is executive attention. This component deals with a person’s ability to focus and pay attention without being distracted by outside sources.
A change from the past
The long-term study used 382 adolescents from at-risk urban neighborhoods. The researchers hoped to get an inside look at the initial uses of alcohol, marijuana and tobacco. The young adults were all between the ages of 11 and 13. Usually around this age, children become curious about risky incidences that distinguish the road to adulthood. In the past, studies have asked their adult participants to recall when they began experimenting with substances, noting that early drug experimentation can lead to problems with addiction later on. The study’s findings were published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.
However, the study authors found that this may not be the case.
“Not all forms of early drug use are problematic,” lead author Atika Khurana said in a statement. “There could be some individuals who start early, experiment and then stop. And there are some who could start early and go on into a progressive trajectory of continued drug use. We wanted to know what separates the two?”
The researchers administered four different types of tests to participants. In each part, the group would self-report on any drug use or experimentation in the past 30 days. The study authors also conducted memory tests. The participants underwent Corsi block tapping, where subjects observe identical blocks that light up in a random sequence and then have to tap each box in the reverse order of the lighting sequence. They also took the digit-span test where a random number sequence has to be repeated in reverse order and a letter two-back test where participants recognize specific letters within a small frame of time. The last task they had to do was a spatial working-memory task where they needed to identify tokens hidden in four to eight randomly positioned boxes.
The study authors noticed that participants who could not focus on the tasks at hand developed substance abuse problems later on. The researchers are still investigating the participants, who are now in their late teenage years. However, they believe that aside from early experimentation, compulsive progression can lead to addiction.
The role of the prefrontal cortex
The prefrontal region of the brain can control impulsive thoughts or actions. People with a stronger prefrontal cortex may be able to focus better and ignore persistent urges. McGill University stated that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for various functions in the brain, such as emotional responses and the ability to control the excretion of dopamine, serotonin and norepenephrine. Specifically, the lateral prefrontal cortex allows people to assess various outcomes of a situation before making a decision. That means this region can help consider consequences and control impulsivity.
“By its nature, greater executive attention enables one to be less impulsive in one’s decisions and actions because you are focused and able to control impulses generated by events around you. What we found is that if teens are performing poorly on working memory tasks that tap into executive attention, they are more likely to engage in impulsive drug-use behaviors,” Khurana noted.
The study authors are considering new types of approaches for intervening early for vulnerable adolescents. These weaknesses can begin as early as 3 years old. Family environments with cognitively stimulating activities and structured schedules can help develop working memory skills in children. Interventions for older children involve tasks that use problem-solving skills and cognition-strengthening to help develop the working memory and focus. These tasks allow people to store and organize mental information for a short period of time. They are crucial in helping people consider a situation’s consequences instead of acting impulsively.
The researchers believe these tasks will help compensate for the vulnerabilities that can lead to substance experimentation and possible addiction.