Sara Bellum
May 4 2011
Joe Frascella, Ph.D, Director of the Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Photo by Robin Stevens Payes.
Joe Frascella is Director of the Division of Clinical Neuroscience and Behavioral Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a part of the National Institutes of Health. He’s also an artist and musician.

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Dr. Frascella: At NIDA, we’re interested in how drug abuse affects brain and behavior, so we can learn how to better prevent and treat it.

We’re finding out that all drugs of abuse change the brain. Our task as scientists and researchers is to try to figure out 1) How to prevent the use of drugs that change the brain, and 2) Once the brain has been changed, can we change it back to normal?

We know generally that drugs change the brain in ways that result in some dysfunctional behaviors.

SBB: What does that mean?

Dr. Frascella: Well, for instance, addiction is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and drug taking. That means once you start [abusing drugs], you often can’t stop, even if you want to. That is because your brain has been changed in ways that “hijack” your self-control. So although your initial decision to take drugs was a voluntary behavior (maybe you thought you’d try them out once or twice), it ends up being compulsive behavior, where you are driven to repeat drug use again and again.

Over time, if you keep taking drugs, you’re no longer in control. The drug-seeking urges or drug cravings become so strong that you can’t stop.

SBB: Is marijuana one of those drugs that can hijack the brain?

Dr. Frascella: It certainly could. There are plenty of people who start out smoking pot recreationally. Some people may try it to be “cool” and have fun with their friends. They like it so much, they keep doing it. But 15 to 20 years later, they’re still smoking marijuana every day, once, twice, or three or more times a day. They can’t go to sleep without it; and they have trouble with thinking and remembering things. It becomes a big problem in their lives.

SBB: Does smoking pot have any unique effects when you’re a teen?

Dr. Frascella: We know that the teenage brain isn’t fully developed in areas where making decisions and exercising good judgment (the frontal areas of the brain) are involved. Adding drugs of abuse further compromises those same brain areas, so it’s like a “double whammy.” Because the brain isn’t fully developed, drugs can have a greater effect on it and cause the brain not to function properly.

If you think about a car, drugs push the “go” system, the gas pedal. The frontal areas of the brain are like the braking system. Those brakes are not fully developed, and the drugs are pushing on that accelerator without having brakes. We really need those frontal brain areas to help us weigh two sides of a decision properly and consider the consequences, which we don’t tend to do when we’re young and feeling like nothing can hurt us.

SBB: So we’re speeding through life with no brakes, and whatever is in front of us gets mowed down?

Dr. Frascella: Well, hopefully not. Hopefully we aren’t without any brakes. Our research at NIDA is to figure out ways to enhance those braking systems and come up with therapies that can help teenagers and adults who want to take back their lives from the grip of drugs.

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