Sara Bellum
April 27 2012

The human brain continues to grow during the teen years, well into the twenties. It’s a scientific fact that abusing drugs and alcohol while your brain is still developing can change the brain’s structure and how it works—both in the short and long term.

Yale University scientists recently explored how some of these changes occur when the brain is exposed to the stimulant cocaine—and learned that some changes result from the brain trying to protect itself.

Your Brain’s Self-Defense

When exposed to cocaine for the first time, the teen brain tries to defend itself against the harmful drug by changing the shape of the brain cells (or neurons) and synapses. This defensive reaction is controlled by a certain pathway in the brain involving integrin beta1, a crucial gene in the development of the nervous system in humans and most animals.

The scientists discovered that if they blocked the pathway—and prevented this cell-shape change—the mice became three times more sensitive to the effects of cocaine.

This research may explain why some people who use cocaine end up addicted to the drug while others escape its worst effects. Everyone’s genetic makeup is unique. It’s possible that those with strong integrin beta1 pathways are better able to avoid the dangerous effects of the drug. More research is needed to discover which genes can protect the brain from the effects of cocaine and other drugs.

Good News: Cocaine Use Is Down

The number of teens using cocaine has been steadily declining over the past decade. In fact, use among all age groups is down.

Update: More teens continue to make smart choices about cocaine use. Read about this and other positive trends in youth substance use.

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